Lentils (those tiny little legumes often displayed in the “healthy grains” section of the supermarket) are not commonly on the dinner plate in most American households, even though they are a key element in the healthy – and highly recommended – Mediterranean diet. Domesticated about 10,000 years ago along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, lentils provided an efficient form of protein for early man. While lentils have been grown and eaten for millennia, they have been considered a “poor man’s food” for almost as long. Even in the beginning, the rich could get their protein from meat, especially beef, and the poor depended on plant protein. And to further contribute to a poor reputation for lentils, the biblical story of Jacob and his brother Esau, revolves around the bartering of Esau’s birthright as oldest son for a lowly bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 29-34). It was described as a “red stew” and assumed to be a thick soup made of red lentils.
Today lentils are grown and consumed around the world and the US is one of the ten largest growers and one of the five largest exporters of the tiny legume. At the same time, we import about 14% as much as we export. Thousands of years after the first cultivation of lentils, many of the countries that were in the heart of lentil production are now the largest importers of lentils in the world.
Legume or Pulse?
The tiny lentil – Lens culinaris Medik – is part of the large legume or bean family – Fabaceae - that includes plants ranging from trees and shrubs to small herbaceous plants like garden peas and sweet peas, and which bear seeds in pods. Is it a legume or a pulse? All Fabaceae plants are legumes, all pulses are legumes, but not all legumes are pulses. A pulse is the edible seed of a legume, edible by humans or livestock. The name pulse was taken from the Latin word puls, meaning a thick soup.
More than 70% of the lentils grown in the US – primarily in Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Idaho – are exported. Lentils have been grown in rotation with wheat since the 1930s and, not only do they fix nitrogen in the soil to “feed” the wheat crop, they are becoming a good cash crop on their own. Organic lentils from Montana are gaining more and more recognition across the country.
Not All Lentils Are Equal
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Use this checklist and you’ll make the right choice:
- Organic or Conventional? When selecting legumes, whole grains, or flour, we recommend you choose organic over conventional for a simple reason: organic production methods forbid the use of synthetic pesticides. By selecting organic you avoid consuming food products that may have been treated with any number of chemicals including Paraquat, Diquat, and Glyphosate. All three herbicides can be used late in the season, on standing lentil and grain crops, for several reasons including “pre-harvest desiccation… to accelerate or even up ripening to assist with harvest.” Lentils may be harvested 2 to 7 days after application, depending on the type of herbicide used.
- Commodity or Family Farmed? Rarely are lentils, peas, and other legumes labeled with information identifying the farm – or even the state – from which they originated. If possible buy from a farmer you know or buy brands that support small family farms. On our continuum there are two brands that can rightly make that claim: Timeless Natural Food and Palouse Brand. Commodity brands are generally labeled with the country of origin, though you may find a label that says, “US/Canada” or something similar.
- How Will You Use Them? “Decordicated” lentils, like petite crimson or small golden lentils, have had their dark hulls removed leaving the bright seed. They cook quickly and are often used to make purees, dips, and soups. Lentils with the skins on – green lentils, French lentils, Pardina lentils, brown lentils, black lentils – hold their shape when cooked and are good for chili, baked casseroles, veggie burgers, and hearty soups.
- How Old Are They? This question really applies to the lentils in your pantry. If you’ve had them in a bag or jar for years and years, be advised that it will take you MUCH longer to cook them than you expect. While lentils will keep well, it is best that you use them before a year passes.
- When Do I Add the Salt? Now that you’ve selected the right lentil – and you know the seeds are fairly fresh – there are some cooking hints that will make your dishes taste even better.
- If you’re not sure of the provenance of your lentils, be sure to rinse them carefully and check for stones and other foreign matter before cooking.
- Do not soak lentils before cooking.
- Bring the water to a boil, then add lentils, and reduce the heat to low. Slowly simmer them. Start your timing when you’ve added them.
- Cooking times are specific to the variety and processing of the lentils. Cooking time also varies with the age of the lentil; fresher lentils have more moisture and cook more quickly.
- DO NOT add salt to cooking water; salt toughens lentils as they cook. Salt when the lentils have cooked.
- Add a squeeze of lemon or a teaspoon of vinegar after cooking, but before draining. It will liven up the flavor.
- Try a different variety and experiment with flavors; each has its own subtle differences.
Beans: A History, Ken Albala (Berg)
The Versatile Grain and the Elegant Bean, Sheryl and Mel London (Simon and Schuster)
The Pea and Lentil Cookbook – From Everyday to Gourmet (USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council)
Heirloom Beans, Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington (Chronicle Books)
Grains, Rice, and Beans, Kevin Graham (Artisan)
Small-Scale Grain Raising – An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green)
Timeless Natural Foods (also available in supermarkets and natural food stores across the US)
Photo credit (Lentils and Garlic): MFG/Lady Disdain, used with permission under Creative Commons license.