Lentils are one of our oldest cultivated crops—in fact, they're mentioned in the Bible. But throughout much of their history, they've been considered a food fit only for the lower classes. That's a shame, because lentils' health benefits are considerable, and their potent, natural combination of protein, fiber, and minerals is especially important in vegetarian diets.
To start with, lentils are simply packed with protein. Fifty grams contain as much protein as 67 grams of beef. And lentils contain almost all of the essential amino acids that the body needs to utilize protein; only two are missing, and by combining lentils with a few other vegetables such as corn and spinach, you can arrive at a hefty helping of complete protein.
These deceptively tiny seeds are also powerhouses of fiber, both soluble and insoluble—more than 15 grams in just 1 cup. Lentils also contain generous amounts of folate and magnesium that support heart health. And their iron content is especially important for youngsters and pregnant women.
Clearly, it’s time that lentils were given their due as part of a healthy diet. And because they don’t require the lengthy soaking that most dried legumes need, they're quite easy to prepare. All you need is a little inspiration. Try an Indian dish like Dal, or explore the Ethiopian stew called Kik Alicha. Or use our Magical Lentil Surprise as a base for your own paean to the surprisingly nutritious and delicious lentil.
Magical Lentil Surprise
Makes 6 1-Cup Servings
This versatile mix can be used as a base for a multitude of healthy meals, provides complete proteins, and freezes beautifully.
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped (2 cups)
4 large carrots, diced (2 cups)
2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 3—4 ears)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
1 Tbs. fresh thyme leaves
6 cups cooked lentils
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrots, and corn, and sauté 4 minutes, or until beginning to brown and crisp. Add garlic and thyme, and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, and stir in lentils and spinach. Divide into containers or ziplocs for storage; keep a couple in the fridge, freeze the rest.
PER SERVING: 375 CAL; 21 G PROT; 8 G TOTAL FAT (1 G SAT FAT); 59 G CARB; 0 MG CHOL; 51 MG SOD; 19 G FIBER; 11 G SUGARS
How to Use Magical Lentil Surprise
Tuscan Lentil Dip
2 cups cooked yellow or red lentils
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, drained and chopped
1 Tbs. drained capers
3 oz. fresh goat cheese
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
Place all ingredients in food processor, and process until well-combined, but with coarse texture. Serve with assorted crudités.
PER SERVING: 260 CAL; 15 G PROT; 10 G TOTAL FAT (3 G SAT FAT); 29 G CARB; 5 MG CHOL; 83 MG SOD; 11 G FIBER; 3 G SUGARS
The Rainbow Effect
Perhaps your only experience with lentils has been the ubiquitous brown variety that can be found in most supermarkets—nutritious to be sure, but hardly visually scintillating. But take a trip out to your local health food store or ethnic grocery, and you'll soon discover a beautiful array of intriguingly hued legumes. The French green du Puy lentil is an appealing speckled forest-green; other shades of green include Eston, Richlea, and Laird. Then there are the lighter colors, such as Petite Golden and Red Chief yellow, and the bicolors like Masoor with its flame-colored center.
My favorite is the black Beluga lentil, so named because of its resemblance to Beluga caviar. This tiny round seed is a deep purple-black, and offers an additional nutritional benefit—the pigment that creates the dense dark color is the same anthocyanin found in berries and wine, and it's a potent antioxidant. And the flavor of this caviar look-alike is rich, earthy and satisfying.
Keep in mind that the lighter-colored lentils will break down more easily and are best used for soups and stews, while darker ones retain their shape better and are ideal for salads and side dishes. So grab yourself an assortment and experiment!