Lots of home cooks find dry beans (legumes) intimidating. Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans — they take a really long time to cook. Soaking them overnight before cooking helps, but the beans still need to simmer for hours. That means planning your meal one or two days ahead.
If you want a user-friendly alternative, consider lentils. Lentils are a legume, but unlike other beans they don’t need hours of soaking and cooking. They cook up quickly, more like brown rice or farro. Like all legumes, lentils are high protein. And like legumes, but unlike meat, lentils are low fat, high fiber and loaded with other nutrients.
- inexpensive, even the gourmet varieties
- versatile, especially the gourmet varieties
- tasty: the different varieties have their own unique flavors
- loaded with nutrients: all varieties
- quicker cooking compared to other legumes
- a great protein source for vegetarian and vegan meals
Here’s a chart comparing nutrients for lentil varieties you can find at chain grocery stores or local speciality groceries. The listings are for 1/4 cup dry lentils, which cooks up to 3/4 to 1 cup, depending on how much water you use.
|1/4 cup dry uncooked||calories||protein||carbs||fiber||iron|
|red lentils||172||11.5 grams||30 grams||5.2 grams||3.6 mg|
|black lentils||180||13 grams||30 grams||9 grams||4 mg|
|brown lentils||169||12 grams||30 grams||5 grams||3.1 mg|
|French (green) lentils||170||12 grams||29 grams||5 grams||3.9 mg|
Different varieties of lentil may also contain significant amounts of folate, zinc, and potassium. Black lentils are a good source of anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant found in black/purple foods.
The most common lentils in grocery stores are the brown lentils used in lentil soup. They cook quickly, to a soft texture, which makes them a good choice for soups. I prefer black or French (green) lentils, both of which cook more like grains. They have a chewier texture and are great for salads, whether cold or hot/room temperature. Red or yellow lentils are used to make Indian dal soups, seasoned with curry spices and garnished with cilantro and plain yogurt. There’s a recipe in my book “Feed Your Vegetarian Teen 2nd Edition.”
What to make with lentils:
- lentil burgers
- lentil stew
- add lentils to pasta sauce in place of meat
- add lentils to casseroles like lasagna
- use lentils in tacos or burritos
- use lentils in a grain bowl. They’d pair well with couscous, shredded carrots, chopped fresh spinach, chopped radishes, sliced apple, chopped toasted walnuts and a mild olive oil/red wine vinegar dressing.
Here’s a basic recipe for a lentil salad. You can personalize it by adding more or different vegetables or herbs.
Black Lentil Salad
You can use black lentils or French green lentils for this recipe (sometimes called Puy). Don't over cook the lentils. They should be chewy, not mushy. The salad can be served at room temperature right after you finish preparing it. If you prefer a cold salad, refrigerate 1-2 hours before serving.
- 3/4 cup black of French green lentils
- 1/2 ripe avocado, cut into chunks
- 1 red ripe tomato, chopped (or 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half)
- 1/4 cup minced red onion or scallions
- 2-3 TB mined fresh cilantro, flat leaf parsley or fresh oregano, or a combination of these (1 TB of fresh mint is a nice addition if you have it available)
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
- juice from 1/2 lemon, or more to taste
- salt to taste
- about 3 TB olive oil
- Step 1 Simmer the lentils in 2-1/2 cups water until al dente, 30-40 minutes.
- Step 2 Drain off excess water. Put lentils in a mixing bowl.
- Step 3 Toss with 2-3 TB olive oil until coated. Cool to room temperature.
- Step 4 Add the rest of the ingredients and toss together gently.
- Step 5 Serve at room temperature, or refrigerate for later use.
For more information on lentils, including plenty of interesting lentil recipes, check out Lentils.org, a website published by the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers trade group. There are lots of yummy recipes. Lentils for breakfast? There are recipes for that. I prefer the recipes that let lentils shine, rather than recipes that combine lentils as a side dish to meat.