For the Love of Lentils
By Anne L. Desjardins
Wait! If you think lentils are a poor man’s meal and too complicated to cook… it’s time you reconsider. Vegans and vegetarians step aside; we, carnivores, want some of the action too…
A bit of history…
This lowly legume has been nourishing mankind for mellennia. The earliest records of lentil use dates back more than 9000 years to caves in ancient Greece. It is believed that cultivation of lentils began in the Near East or the Mediterranian areas and, since the crop is relatively easy to grow, has spread around the world.
Like beans, lentils are a legume that grow in pods and are dried after harvesting. Lentils come in a variety of colors : red, brown and green are the most popular. They can be bought dried or in cans, whole or split.
Helping to keep you healthy…
Lentils may be small, but they pack a nutritional punch. They offer a raft of health benefits. It’s hard to pick the greatest benefit : lentils are a super source of fiber, which helps to keep cholesterol levels low. They are heart-healthy, not only because of the high fiber content, but also because they supply amounts of folate and magnesium.
The fibers also help keep blood suger levels from rising too rapidly after a meal. Health studies have proven the value of high-fiber diets, and for people with insulin resistance, hypoglycemia or diabetes, eating a diet that contains 50 g of fibers a day can significantly reduce levels of blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol.
While lentils are virtually fat-free, they also provide an excellent source of protein. 100 grams of lentils contain the same amount of proteins as do 136 grams of beef. They also provide six important minerals and two B-vitamins. Lentils are a nutritional powerhouse, but a cup of the cooked legumes contains only 230 calories, another good reason to try them if you haven’t yet.
Choosing your lentils
There are more than 50 varieties of edible lentils, but three types are found most often in North America : brown lentils, red lentils and French lentils. Brown lentils are the most common; they are cooked whole with the seed coat and keep their shape when cooked, although they can get mushy if overcooked. Most red or orange lentils tend to disintegrate with cooking because the hull has been removed. Unless they are served after just a short cooking time (2-3 minutes), they are at their best when used in soups or as thickeners. French du Puy lentils are green and grey. These are especially valued because while cooking makes them tender, they retain their shape. Most supermarkets sell the brown and the red varieties, while French lentils are a little harder to find (and more expensive), usually at specialty and helath food stores. They are excellent in salads, soups and curries. While the flavor can vary slightly among the different varieties, they tend to have a dense, nutty flavor. And whatever type you choose, lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber.
However, like all vegetable protein, lentil protein is not truly complete because it lacks some of the 16 essential amino acids that are the building block of proteins. So, in order to make the most of their protein content, it is necessary to supplement them with wheat (bread), rice and soya. Nuts are also a perfect (and delicious!) protein complement for lentils and are widely used in India to make lentil curries.
Lentils are generally sold dried in pre-packaged containers, ready for cooking. They should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place. They will keep for up to 12 months if properly stored. Canned lentils are also available, and unlike canned vegetables their nutritional value remains intact.
Lentils : a perfect choice for paddlers…
The fact that lentils come dried or in can makes it an almost perfect foodstuff for paddlers. Like rice and pasta, it is easy to store and carry along on a longer trip. And its nutritional content is perfect for a paddler’s quest for a slow-burning fuel. You can always pre-cook your lentils and bring them along with you already prepared in a cooler, or you can bring them along canned or dried. Contrarely to other legumes, lentils don’t need pre-soaking, but you may want to use that technique (30 minutes to 2 hours) if you are at the campsite and want to slightly reduce the cooking time by about one third.
Before cooking lentils, it’s always a good idea to check for small stones or impurities. The lentils should be placed into boiling water : three cups of liquid for each cup of lentils. Turn down the heat, cover and simmer. The larger brown and green lentils can take up to 30 minutes; red and orange about 5-10 minutes. But the cooking time should be adjusted depending on the final use. If you want a firmer texture for salads or soups, cook for 5 to 10 minutes less.
Easy lentil loaf (to make ahead at home)
**Excellent as is or in a sandwich for lunch**
Preheat oven to 350F. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well and press mixture into a lightly oiled loaf pan. Bake 50 to 60 minutes.
- 2 cups cooked green or brown lentils
- 1 cup quick oatmeal
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 tbs bacon bits (soy or regular)
- 4 tbs flat leaf parsley, finely chopeed (or 2 tbsp dried)
- 1 tsp fresh thym (or 1/2 tsp dried)
- 1 tsp fresh oregano (or 1/2 dried)
- 1/2 tsp dried basil
(or any combination of herbs that you like)
- 1/2 tsp hot sauce (to taste)
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
- 2 cups tomato sauce
Mediterranean Lentil salad
Combine all ingredients. Let stand 15-30 minutes to blend flavors. Serve.
- 4 cups cooked green or brown lentils
- 1 chopped red or orange bell pepper
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 small fennel bulb, finely chopped
- 6 green onions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
- 1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
- 1/2 cup kalamata or black olives
- 2 tsp Italian dry herbs
- 4 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 8 tbsp virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
(You can add orzo pasta to this salad and omit the pine nuts if you like.)
The simplest lentil soup
In a large pot, sauté vegetables in olive oil, except tomatoes, over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, herbs and spices and broth and bring to a boil. Simmer until cooked, 20-25 minutes. If you want to cut on the cooking time by at least one third, soak the lentils in fresh water all day.
- 2 cups green lentils, uncooked and rinsed
- 2 dry shallots, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 large carrots, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 large potato, chopped
- 1 large can chopped tomatoes
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 4 tbsp dried parsley
- 2 tbsp dried chives
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
To give this soup an amazingly delicious Indian flavour, you can prepare a special mix of spices at home before leaving for your kayak trip. To the original recipe, simply add 3 tbsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp cumin, 2 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp mustard seed, 1 tsp cinnamon pinch of clove, pinch chili peppers; just before dinner chop 4 tbsp fesh ginger, 4 cloves crushed garlic. Sauté spices in oil 2-3 minutes, then add vegetables, ginger and garlic. Increase the amount of water by 2 cups and add 2/3 cup Basmati rice, along with the tomatoes.