For many centuries, lentils have been considered a "poor man's food," a cheap and filling source of protein that was shunned by those who could afford to eat steak instead.
But lentils are moving up the social ladder. Restaurant chefs are putting them on plates with costly salmon and quail. Nutritionists are taking a new look at this food that's high in complex carbohydrates, fiber and protein and low in sodium, fat and calories. And these legumes fit very nicely into the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Pyramid Guide, which suggests eating six to 11 servings a day of bread, cereal, rice and pasta for a healthful diet.
In a study by Dr. James W. Anderson, professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, cholesterol levels were lowered by an average of 60 points when people ate 1 1/2 cups of beans a day for three weeks. And no need to worry about a gas attack from eating too many lentils -- they have fewer oligosaccharides, the gas-producing sugars that can make eating beans difficult.
The one thing lentils do lack, however, is methionine, an amino acid necessary to make them a complete protein. But eating grains, nuts, seeds, meat, dairy products or eggs on the same day will complement the protein. Try a lentil and rice salad, lentil and barley soup, lentil soup with corn bread, lentil and cheese quiche.
Lentils are among the oldest known foods. Apicius, the first Roman cookbook writer, lists a recipe for lentils with mussels. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob in the Old Testament for a dish of lentil soup.
Italians eat lentils with cotechino sausage on New Year's Eve as a bid for prosperity: The lentils symbolize money, and the pork sausage represents a purse to hold it.
Greeks eat lentils on Good Friday. The shape and abundance of the lentils represent the Blessed Virgin's tears, and vinegar is added to signify the bitterness of the day.
Although there is a wide variety of lentils, only four or five types are grown in the United States, most of them in a 12,500-square-mile area in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana that is called the Palouse, French for green lawn.
The average crop yields 107 million pounds a year, and 75 percent of all American-grown lentils are exported to Spain, Peru and Italy. Other lentils are grown in France, Italy and the Middle East.
The common lentils found in supermarkets are green or brown lentils. Their color ranges from buff to dark brown; some have a greenish cast. They tend to become mushy if cooked too long. Allow 10 to 15 minutes of cooking for salads and side dishes, 30 minutes for soups and stews.
American red lentils, known as red chief, are the same size and shape as common green-brown lentils but have been dehulled. Cook them 5 to 10 minutes to use in salads, 10 to 20 minutes for soups and purees. Once they're cooked the orange color changes to a golden yellow.
Turkish reds are smaller than American red lentils. They're skinless and split horizontally along the seam. They cook quickly and become a puree in a matter of minutes.
Red lentils also are called pink lentils or Egyptian lentils. Used frequently in East African, Middle Eastern and Indian dishes, their fragile flavor often is lifted with lots of spices. The shelf life of Turkish red lentils is shorter than other lentils, because they're coated with oil.
French lentils are smaller and thicker than brown lentils and range from smoky blue to greenish black in color. Their skins are tough, so they hold up well in salads and side dishes. Their flavor is hearty and robust, almost nutty. The most famous French lentils -- and the most expensive of all lentils -- are grown in volcanic soil around the town of Le Puy in Ardeches.
Lentils withcotechino sausage
Makes 6 servings.
1 cotechino sausage (about 1 pound)
14 ounces lentils
3 cups chicken or beef broth
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
8 fresh sage leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste diluted in a little water
Salt and pepper
Soak the sausage in water for two hours. Wash lentils, cover wit water and cook 45 minutes.
Wrap the sausage in cheesecloth, pierce with a fork and cook in broth over low heat 50 minutes, skimming off any fat. Cool, unwrap and remove casing. Reserve broth.
In a fry pan, heat oil and saute onion, celery, carrot, garlic and sage. Drain lentils; add the vegetables, salt, pepper and tomato sauce. Add 3 ladles of broth from the sausage. Slice the sausage and serve with lentils.
From "Celebrating Italy," by Carol Field (William Morrow)
Lamb shanks with lentils
Makes 6 servings.
6 medium lamb shanks, about 8 ounces each
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups lentils
3 cups water
1 small onion, stuffed with 3 whole cloves
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 bay leaf
6 thin lemon slices
In a large skillet, brown lamb shanks in olive oil. Add 1/2 cu water, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, oregano and pepper. Cook, covered, over low heat for one hour, or until tender.
Rinse lentils and drain. In a medium saucepan, combine lentils, 3 cups water, onion, celery, bay leaf and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Simmer, uncovered, 50 to 60 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
Pour mixture into greased baking dish. Top with meat, lemon slices. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and lentils are tender. Discard onion and bay leaf.
From "The Complete Book of Greek Cooking," edited by Katherine R. Boulukos (HarperCollins)
Curry-laced tomato-lentil broth
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 cup red lentils
4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
Wash lentils thoroughly. Place in a pot with 3 cups water an turmeric. Cook, partially covered, until very tender, about 30 minutes.
Combine lentils and 1 cup water in a deep pot. Whisk to crush some of the lentils. Add the tomatoes, cumin, ground coriander, cayenne, onion, garlic and salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook, partially covered, 10 minutes. Add lemon juice.
Heat oil in a small skillet until hot. Add mustard seeds and cover so the seeds do not fly out of the pan. When they stop spattering, mix into soup. Stir in fresh coriander.
From "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking," by Julie Sahni (William Morrow)
Green lentil salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 pound imported French green lentils or brown lentils
1 medium onion, halved and stuck with 2 cloves
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse lentils and discard any pebbles. Place lentils, onion, garli and bay leaf in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water by 1 inch. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender, 25 to 35 minutes. Add liquid as needed; liquid should be absorbed when lentils are done.
Discard onion, garlic and bay leaf. Whisk vinegar, oil and salt together in a small bowl. Pour over warm lentils and toss. Before serving, season with pepper and additional salt, if necessary. Serve warm.
From "Bistro Cooking," by Patricia Wells (Workman)