Lentils are one of the most ancient of cultivated crops, and they’re widely consumed throughout Europe, India, and Africa. They are wonderfully all-purpose, low in fat, high in protein and fiber, and unlike other legumes, they cook quickly and require no soaking. They are a terrific meat substitute for vegetarians in a variety of forms – as in burgers and loaves. Lentils have a mild, earthy flavor, and stand up well against more assertive flavorings.
Puy lentils or French lentils are some of the finest available. While they take a bit longer to cook than brown lentils, they’re worth the extra time because they hold their shape well after cooking. Puy lentils are smaller than brown lentils and they’re a beautiful blue green color. They will darken after cooking and I wouldn’t recommend they be used in a burger or loaf recipe as they cost more than brown lentils and they’re very refined. At one time they were only grown in the volcanic soil of Puy, France, but they are now also grown in Italy and North America, which makes them more affordable.
All lentils are best when simmered gently and shouldn’t be used just for soups. Use them as you would other beans – they make great tacos, for example. All lentils are a wonderful, protein-rich addition to salads or are a delicious side dish to any meal.
Dal (or split lentils) are often sold in Indian markets. They cook down quickly and are best puréed or added to soups.
Before cooking, simply rinse lentils and pick out any stones. Salting the water during cooking will slow the process, so season them just before serving. A delicious lentil dish can be ready in as little as half an hour. An essential pantry item, lentils of all types will last up to a year stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Recently during an informal get together, I made a simple stew with puy lentils, garlic and onions which I served over wilted baby spinach and cornbread with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped cilantro a squeeze of fresh lemon, and fresh cracked pepper. It was the easiest meal you can imagine, and turned out to be a great success with my supper guests. Next time you think of passing by lentils at the store, take the leap and grab a bag – you won’t be sorry.