Friday’s food: Lentils

Lentils de Puy, red, and green varieties

Another one of cooking’s “Oldies but Goodies” these legumes (pulses) have been around since prehistoric times and are thought to have originated in the Near East or Mediterranean.

Perhaps the most famous lentil meal was the stew for which Jacob traded his birthright to Esau (Genesis 27:1-46).  It was also part of a bread recipe used by the Jewish people during their time as captives of the Babylonians.  Artifacts date back about 8,000 years while some records date human use to as far back as 13,000 to 9,500 years ago.

For millennia, lentils have traditionally been eaten with barley and wheat, three foodstuffs that originated in the same regions and spread throughout Africa and Europe during similar migrations and explorations of cultural tribes. Before the 1st century AD, they were introduced into India, a country whose traditional cuisine still bestows high regard for the spiced lentil dish known as dal. In many Catholic countries, lentils have long been used as a staple food during Lent. Currently, the leading commercial producers of lentils include India, Turkey, Canada, China and Syria.
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Long rejected by culinary snobs as a cheap “poor man’s food”, through the centuries this nutritional powerhouse has fed both king and commoner.  It is not uncommon for the most nutritious whole foods to be processed to be esthetically pleasing while nutritionally bereft.  Just look at the typical Western diet – and the health problems that result.

Known as dal or dahl in India, hundreds of lentil varieties come in a wide range of colors including reds, yellow, brown, orange, black and green, with brown being the most common in the US.

Available in Fort Worth and area grocery stores (dry and canned for cooking, ready to eat in salad bars, frozen and canned foods, as well as ready to cook mixes), they are perfect for soups, stews casseroles, salads and cook up quickly with no pre-soaking required.

Due to their high iron and almost complete protein profile, they are an excellent meat replacement.  Round out the meal with some whole grain rice, some green goodies, a salad, and you’ll be stuffed – that is filled up without being filled out.  Their high soluble and insoluble fiber content will keep your digestive tract busy for a good long time.

In a study that examined food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary heart disease, researchers followed more than 16,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Finland, The Netherlands, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece and Japan for 25 years.  Typical food patterns were: higher consumption of dairy products in Northern Europe; higher consumption of meat in the U.S.; higher consumption of vegetables, legumes, fish and wine in Southern Europe; and higher consumption of cereals, soy products and fish in Japan.  When researchers analyzed this data in relation to the risk of death from heart disease, they found that legumes were associated with a whopping 82% reduction in risk!!
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  • Heart healthy fiber that helps lower cholesterol; helps balance blood sugar; high in iron for red blood cells.  Part of a key enzyme system for energy production and metabolism.

Prepare lentils by spreading out on a light colored surface to check for small stones and/or debris.  Rinse and cook in boiling unsalted water with a ratio of 3 cups water to 1 cup lentils.  They take about 20 minutes (French Green take about 30).  Consider the final use.  If you are using them in salads, check to make sure they are not mushy.  Until you are familiar with their preparation, follow the recipes carefully.  Once you become more adept, try these suggestions:

  • Combine cooked lentils, and chopped sweet peppers to make a delicious cold salad.  Season with your favorite herbs and spices.
  • Toss buckwheat soba noodles with cooked lentils, small broccoli florets and leeks.  Dress with olive oil mixed with garlic and ginger.
  • Moroccan lentil soup is easy to make.  After cooking lentils, add diced vegetables of your choice and season with tamari, coriander, cumin, turmeric and cayenne.

Lentils and Purines
Lentils contain naturally-occurring substances called purines.  Purines are commonly found in plants, animals, and humans.  In some individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, excessive intake of these substances can cause health problems.  Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid.  The health condition called “gout” and the formation of kidney stones from uric acid are two examples of uric acid-related problems that can be related to excessive intake of purine-containing foods.  Yet, recent research has suggested that purines from meat and fish increase risk of gout, while purines from plant foods fail to change the risk.
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French Green lentils or Puy Lentils (from the Puy area in France) are a culinary favorite.  Not only do they have a delightful peppery flavor, but they also hold their shape exceptionally well, even when overcooked.

They are an excellent source of molybdenum and folate, very good source of dietary fiber and manganese, and a good source of iron, protein, phosphorus, copper, thiamin and potassium.

Some tasty lentil recipes
USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council

Now that you know how great lentils are, can you really fault a hungry Jacob for making a not-so-well-thought-out deal?

Check Fort Worth’s Central Market and  Whole Foods Market in Arlington for French Green lentils and many other varieties.  If they don’t have it in stock when you call, they can probably order it for you.

The (photo image) file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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