Lentils (Indian dal) are small, ancient and humble, but super powerful. Botanically, they are known as lens culanaris esculenta, (Latin “lens” because they look like tiny eyes), and they are a member of the legume family. Since prehistoric times, they have been a source of sustenance for humans, probably because they have the third highest protein content of any legumes.
Peggy Trowbridge Filippone writes in “Lentil History”, “Lentil artifacts have been found on archaeological digs dating back 8,000 years.” Those artifacts were found on the banks of the Euphrates in what is now Syria.
Lentil cultivation in India dates back to 2500 B.C., and today, India consumes roughly half of the world’s lentil production. And as NPR reports, “Nearly every traditional Indian meal includes at least one lentil dish, and they are an important source of nutrients for millions of vegetarians on the subcontinent.”
Lentils have been used in religious ceremonies in Muslim traditions, especially in Iran. And according to Kimberly B. Flint-Hamilton in Legumes in Ancient Greece and Rome: Food, Medicine or Poison?, “Of all of the legumes, lentil is more frequently mentioned in Greek and Roman literature….Lentils were a staple in the ancient Mediterranean world.”
They are also eaten in Italy and other European nations just after midnight on New Year’s Day, where superstition has them bringing luck and prosperity in the year to come.
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Lentils grow two to a pod, and over one hundred varieties of lentils are grown throughout the world, but only approximately 50 of them are cultivated by humans for food. The most popular varieties include:
Brown lentils: Popular in American grocery stores, brown lentils are basic, cooked quickly (in about 20 minutes) and possess a subtle, slightly earthly flavor. They retain their shapes well but will turn to mush if over cooked. They are often used in lentil soups. In Hindi, these are called Sabut Masoor. Big green lentils: These are light green in color and about a quarter-inch in diameter and a bit flat looking. They are full of flavor, remain firm when cooked and keep their shapes. These lentils are best for salads and pilafs.
French green lentils, also called Puy: These lentils are very small and dark green and may be slightly speckled. They are great in salads and in soups that cook for long periods of time as these lentils remain firm the longest. French green lentils take about 40 minutes to properly cook. Yellow lentils: These are sweet and nutty in flavor and are used in most Indian dal recipes because they break down quickly and act like a thickening agent or a puree. These are called Mung Dal in Hindi and in India are actually made from dehusked mung beans.
Red lentils are actually yellow lentils that have been hulled and split (as the insides of yellow lentils are red). These, too, create lovely purees and they are the quickest to cook, requiring only 10-15 minutes. These lentils are called Masoor Dal in Hindi. Black or Beluga lentils: These lentils resemble Beluga caviar when cooked (which is where they got their contemporary name). They are small and round in shape with black hull and a lighter inside. The insides become a creamy texture when cooked.
Medical News Today reports that in addition to being a protein-dense, low-fat food, lentils are an excellent source of fiber, foliate, manganese and potassium. Chefs like them because lentils themselves are mild-tasting enough that they absorb and support the spices in many dishes.
So if you’d like to reap the health benefits (or want luck and prosperity) of lentils, we’ve included two recipes to get you started.
Minty Lentil, Grape and Walnut Salad
- 1 pound of cooked brown or green lentils
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped walnuts (raw or toasted)
- 2 cups seedless grapes
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped or shredded
- 6 ounces mozzarella cheese (shredded or cut into small cubes)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the lentils according to the packaging – usually wash them, add two cups of water per 1 cup of lentils. Once cooked, place lentils, walnuts, grapes, celery, mint and mozzarella in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk oil, vinegar, lemon juice and honey together in a small bowl. Drizzle this over the ingredients in the big bowl and toss until coated. Add salt and pepper if you’d like.
- 1 cup yellow or red lentils
- ¼ cup dried beans
- Water to cover the lentils and beans completely. Soak a minimum of two hours, up to overnight. Then drain.
- 5 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon cumin (powder or seeds)
- 4 cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- 4 bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- 1-1/2 tablespoons ginger (grated or paste is best)
- 1-1/2 tablespoons garlic (grated or paste is best)
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- one pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1 cup of pureed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- ¼ cup butter or ghee
- ½ cup heavy cream (optional)
Cook the soaked lentils, beans, 5 cups of water and salt over medium heat for about an hour or until the beans and lentils are tender. Remove and set aside.
In a saucepan, heat the oil on medium and when hot add the cumin, cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, bay leaves and cloves and cook until the bay leaves brown. Reduce heat to low and add the rest of the spices. Stir. Add tomatoes to the spices and cook over medium heat. Add the butter or ghee and stir until melted. Add lentils, kidney beans and their cooking water to the tomato and spices and cover the saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. And if you want, add cream at the end and heat for another three minutes. Serve warm.
Jill L. Ferguson writes about food, travel and healthy living. She is the founder of WomensWellnessWeekends.com, and the author of seven books. Twitter: JLFerg
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