Lentils are many things.
Colors: red, yellow, orange, black, green, brown. Shapes: round, oval, heart-shaped. Sizes: as big as a pea or smaller than a pencil eraser. But most of all, lentils are the lords of versatility in the kingdom of legumes.
As one of the earliest known cultivars, lentils have had a place in man’s diet for at least 8,000 years. They have been a staple in South Asian and Mediterranean cuisines for centuries. Masoor dal is a traditional Indian dish of lentils stewed with spices and sometimes vegetables or fruits. In both India and in Mediterranean countries, lentils are commonly served with rice, bulgur or barley in salads, stews and curries.
Nutrition-wise, lentils are amazing. Let’s look at the stats:
- A one-cup serving of cooked lentils is 230 calories. A whopping twenty-six percent of those calories come from protein.
- Lentils are high in several B vitamins, including folate. This folate, plus high levels of magnesium and soluble fiber, makes lentils heart-healthy.
- The soluble fiber in lentils also slows digestion and the conversion of complex carbohydrates to sugar, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels.
- Lentils also contain insoluble fiber, which helps lessen the risk of digestive disorders.
- The fact that lentils contain both types of fiber and complex carbs means that they provide the body with an energy boost.
- The iron in lentils helps to ensure good oxygen distribution throughout the blood and contributes to a healthy metabolism.
- And, as if all that goodness wasn’t enough, lentils are nearly fat-free.
Because they are so high in protein, lentils are a special value to vegetarians and vegans. Even better, lentils and rice combined make a complete protein (meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids).
Dried lentils are simple to prepare, and cook faster than other legumes. Because the green and brown varieties hold their shape better during cooking, they are better used for salads, rice dishes and other instances where firmer texture is important. The consistency of cooked yellow, red, orange, pink and black lentils tends more toward the mushy side, making them ideal for soups, stews and curries. As is the general rule when cooking legumes, do not add salt until your lentils are done. Salting the cooking water will make them tough.
So…what do we do with these little nutrition powerhouses?
Perhaps the most well-known use of lentils is in soups and stews. This recipe for Hearty Vegetarian Lentil Soup sounds amazing. Dal, or stewed lentils, is a traditional Indian dish. There are numerous types of dal, one of which is masoor dal (pink lentils). For a good vegan, gluten-free dal, give this recipe for Masoor Dal Tadka a try.Lentils also make wonderful salads. This chilled Green Lentil Salad with Cucumber and a Cumin & Lemon Vinaigrette combines tastebud-slapping flavors like cilantro, cumin, lemon, paprika, garlic and cucumber into one big bowl of yum. You can also use cooked lentils, hot or cold, as a non-meat way to add protein to an ordinary green salad.
Lentil sprouts are just like the sprouts of other legumes, and make tasty salad and sandwich toppings.
If you’re looking to use lentils as a meat substitute at mealtime, you won’t be disappointed. Burgers made with lentils and/or beans are very popular these days, but for something a little different, try these Lentil Sloppy Joes. Missing mom’s old-fashioned meatloaf? Whip up this Meatless Monday “Meat” Loaf made with lentils and mushrooms. Add vegan gravy and smashed potatoes and you’ll think you’re back at Sunday dinner when you were a kid.
This is a mere sampling of the countless ways to create heart-healthy, protein-packed, fiber-rich meals using lentils. Do you have a favorite way to prepare them? Let us know in the comments below!