How often do you eat lentils? If you’re like me when I was a kid, then the answer is never. Lentils are beans, a food that, with the exception of sugary baked beans and maybe some pinto beans in chili, were to be avoided at all costs.
Well, I’m happy to say, that was then and this is now. Beans, otherwise known as legumes, are a food that I have come to embrace in all their beautiful varieties. Lentils are a particularly wonderful type of legume. Unlike most beans, they don’t require soaking; they cook quickly; and they come in a large variety of colors and textures, making them extremely versatile.
I remember when I was pregnant with my older daughter, and one of the salads that I regularly took with me to work was a French-inspired lentil salad. I adored it. I made it using the small French green lentils, which tend to hold their shape after cooking and not turn to mush. After boiling the lentils and draining them, I would add some finely diced carrots and red onion, and then I would toss everything in a red wine vinaigrette followed by a sprinkle of crumbled feta cheese. The result was a salad that was equally delicious warm or cold and that would keep well for up to a week in the fridge, making it an easy lunch box staple.
Despite their diminutive size, lentils are giants in the nutrition department. They deliver important nutrients in a low-fat, low-calorie package. These nutrients include iron, which increases your energy, and magnesium and folate, which contribute to heart health.
Lentils are also a rich source of fiber, which also helps prevent heart disease and lowers blood sugar, and which most Americans get far too little of. One cup of cooked lentils has over 15 grams of fiber, which is more than double what you’ll find in the same amount of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal (7 grams) and two-and-a-half times the amount in two slices of Arnold’s Whole Wheat bread (6 grams). Although the recommended daily amounts of fiber are about 25 grams for women and 35 grams for men, most of us take in far less — about 15 grams — each day. Adding just one 3/4-cup serving of this salad to your lunch or dinner would go a long way in helping you meet these daily targets.
So, are you convinced? Are you ready to try some lentils? No? Well, let me give you one more reason to try it. Lentils are becoming trendy. Yes, it’s true. Lentils have appeared recently on the menus of several fancy restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, and not just in soup. I’ve seen them served as part of an entree (such as with salmon or sea bass), mixed with greens to make a salad, or as a stand-alone side. I even discovered them recently at my favorite coffee house, Peet’s Coffee (sorry, Starbucks). There, sitting on a shelf in the refrigerated display case next to the cheese & fruit boxes and Greek yogurt parfaits was a container of lentil salad using what is probably the best variety of lentil in the world, Beluga (black) lentils. I was in heaven.
French Lentil Salad
1 cup (225 grams) French green lentils (or brown lentils)*
2 bay leaves (optional)**
1/2 red onion
3 tablespoons (45 mL) red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons (45 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper (or about 10 grinds of fresh pepper)
2 ounces (55 grams) feta cheese, crumbled or cut into small cubes
1. Prepare the lentils: Carefully examine the lentils and remove any small stones or grains that you find. Rinse the lentils in a colander and then place them and the bay leaves (if using them) in a saucepan with enough water to cover by two inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and then cook, uncovered, until the lentils are soft but not mushy, about 15-20 minutes.
2. While the lentils are cooking, prepare the vegetables and make the vinaigrette: Peel and trim the carrots, and then cut them into small dice and place in a large mixing bowl. Cut the onion into small dice and place them in the same bowl. In a separate small bowl, whisk the Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar together until the mustard has fully dissolved into the vinegar. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture, whisking continuously until the oil is fully incorporated and the mixture appears to have thickened slightly. Whisk in the salt and pepper.
3. After the lentils have finished cooking (if necessary, taste a few to be sure), remove the bay leaves, drain the water from the lentils (using a colander), and then transfer the lentils to the bowl with the vegetables. Pour the vinaigrette over the lentils and vegetables, and then toss the mixture gently until the ingredients are evenly combined. Let cool for about 10 minutes, and then mix in the feta cheese. Serve warm or slightly chilled.
*There are many varieties of lentils. For this recipe, you want to use lentils that will hold their shape after being cooked, such as French green lentils (sometimes called lentilles du Puy or Puy lentils) or brown lentils. I usually find French green lentils in the bulk bin at grocery stores such as Whole Foods, but they can also be ordered online. Brown lentils are the most common kind and can be found in most grocery stores. Do not use red , as these will turn to mush. Beluga (black) lentils are my favorite for this salad, but they are difficult to find.
**Bay has an aromatic robustness that pairs wonderfully with other earthy flavors, such as lentils. Adding a couple of leaves to the cooking water infuses the lentils with their flavor and helps to create a more complex-tasting dish. If you’re unsure of the flavor, then start out by using one leaf (or even half of a leaf). I’m betting you’ll come to love it!
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