Superfoods: Lentils

By Darya Rose | January 15, 2011
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different varieties of lentils
Illustration by Maria Schoettler

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The humble lentil has been nourishing humanity for thousands of years. As one of the most healthy and inexpensive sources of protein and iron on the planet, lentils are a legitimate superfood and are the perfect ingredient to warm your heart and soul.

What are they? Lentils are small seeds that grow in pods of two. As a member of the legume family, lentils are related to beans, chickpeas, soy and peanuts. Thought to originate in the Near East, lentils are among the oldest cultivated plants in human history and are a staple of many traditional diets. There are approximately a dozen varietals of lentils, which vary in color, size and how well they hold their shape when cooked. The most ubiquitous are Spanish brown lentils, which are relatively large and mostly hold their shape, though can fall apart at longer cooking times. Here in San Francisco French green "Puy" lentils are also fairly easy to find. These are smaller than brown lentils, with dark green and blue speckled coloring. French green lentils hold their shape extremely well, and are therefore excellent for adding to salads, stir-fries and other dishes. The smaller red and yellow lentils commonly used in Indian cooking tend to disintegrate and become paste-like when cooked. Black beluga lentils are also very small, but maintain their shape well. Black lentils are especially delicious and delicate, but are harder to find than other varietals.

Health benefits For a plant, lentils are exceptionally high in protein and iron, making them invaluable to vegetarians. The protein availability of lentils depends on how they are prepared. Lentils contain the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine, but are normally low in methionine and cystine, meaning that on their own they are not a "complete protein." However, if lentils are first sprouted before they are cooked, then all essential amino acids are available, including methionine and cystine. Sprout lentils by soaking them in water for 8-14 hours, depending on size. Alternatively, a full complement of amino acids can be achieved by pairing lentils with whole grains such as rice or wheat. Lentils are also a great source of fiber, vitamin B1 and folic acid, and are naturally gluten-free.

Sourcing and storage Dry lentils are easy to find, easy to store (just keep them in a clean, dry container) and are very inexpensive. In San Francisco, a good selection of lentils can be found in the bulk sections of Rainbow Grocery and Whole Foods. For specialty imported lentils, you can often find several varietals at Boulette's Larder in the Ferry Building (selection varies). Heirloom lentils can also be purchased online at Zürsun Beans.

Home Lentils are delicious, inexpensive and easy to prepare, making them an essential addition to any foodie's pantry. Though soaking lentils will cut down on cooking time and improve nutrition, it is not necessary. Always sort and pick through your lentils to remove small pebbles, which can often be found mixed in with both packaged and bulk legumes, even the best brands. Don't skip this step or you may find yourself with an unexpected dental bill. For lentils that maintain their shape well, cook them by simply boiling in excess water with a dash of salt until tender (approximately 20-30 minutes), drain and serve. When working with lentils that do not keep their shape, you should follow a recipe that tells you the ideal lentil-to-liquid ratio. Cooked and drained lentils store well in the refrigerator in an airtight container for several days. They also keep well in the freezer and can be quickly thawed in the microwave.

Eating out No restaurant in the city is as adept at using lentils as Dosa, which serves traditional and updated South Indian fare. South India is largely Hindu and almost entirely vegetarian, with lentils being the primary protein source in the diet. Though Dosa is not a vegetarian restaurant, lentils or "dal" are featured throughout the menu. The name Dosa refers to a traditional South Indian dish that resembles a large pancake stuffed with vegetables and potatoes. The dosa batter itself is made from lentils and rice, and is allowed to sit and ferment slightly. This process gives the dosa bread a light texture and slightly sour flavor, almost like a delicate, gluten-free sourdough. Dosa's rasam "fire broth" is a lentil-based spicy soup meant to be sipped directly from the bowl, similar to Japanese miso soup. Owner Anjan Mitra calls it "vegetarian chicken soup," a sort of cure-all for anything that ails.   

 

  Superfoods: lentils, was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2011 Edible San Francisco.

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