Lentils are a most versatile and inexpensive food, and so easy to prepare. Low in calories and fat, cholesterol free and a rich source of iron, protein, vitamins, minerals and soluble fibre, they are also one of the healthiest foods in the world.
The lentil plant (Lens culinaris), part of the plant family of peas, is native to south-western Asia and is one of the oldest cultivated legumes. Lentils are used in countless cuisines worldwide and are a staple in many Asian countries.
ANCIENT CULINARY HISTORY
Archaeological records show evidence of the cultivation of lentils as early as 6 000 BC, along with other grains including wheat and barley. Historical records show evidence of lentils in Egyptian tombs dating back more than 2 000 years, in ancient Greece ground lentils were used to bake bread, and in the book of Genesis in the Bible reference is made to a bowl of lentils which Esau exchanged for his birthright.
Lentil plants are cultivated for their seeds, which are dried to be cooked or ground into flour. From a nutritional and health perspective, lentils are extremely nutritious as an unprocessed whole food. Lentils are naturally rich in protein, dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Apart from the fact that they are extremely nutritious, they are also extremely versatile from a culinary perspective – just see the variety of recipes below!
TYPES OF LENTILS
Although there are basically two types of lentils, the larger macrosperma and the smaller Persian microsperma, there are many varieties within these two groups, including the well-known brown, red, green and black lentils.
- Brown lentils are the most common and are ideal for stews, as they hold their shape well after cooking.
- Red lentils take less time to cook and easily cook into a soft pulp, which makes them suitable for soups, purées and dhal.
- Green lentils have the most intense flavour and are ideal for salads because they remain quite firm after cooking.
- Black lentils, not as well known as the other varieties, are characteristically black and shiny when cooked, almost resembling beluga caviar, and are therefore known as beluga lentils.
DID YOU KNOW?
Lentils are classified as a low-GI food, which means food that is digested and absorbed into the body gradually. With this gradual absorption, consuming lentils has the remarkable effect of preventing rapid increases and decreases in blood sugar levels.
Why is this important?
Diabetics are advised to stick to low-GI foods to help control their blood glucose levels. Weight-conscious individuals also benefit from low-GI foods, as these foods support appetite control. Including lentils or beans in only one meal a day can help to reduce the craving for sweetness and starch, because of the moderating effect of low-GI foods on blood glucose levels.
HOW TO PREPARE LENTILS
Most dried pulses need to be soaked in water overnight before they are cooked. The same can be done with lentils, as this would reduce cooking time to 10 – 15 minutes. However, pre-soaking is not essential. Lentils should be boiled by adding three parts cold water to one part lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow them to simmer until the desired texture is achieved.
Cooking time differs slightly for the different types of lentils:
- Brown lentils: 35 – 45 minutes
- Green lentils: 15 – 20 minutes
- Red lentils: 5 – 10 minutes.
Should salt be added?
Ideally salt should not be added during the cooking process, as this may prolong the cooking time as well as affect the texture of the lentils. Adding salt results in the skins becoming tough, and sometimes the lentils stay quite firm.
Add two celery stalks, half an onion and one carrot when boiling lentils. This adds a lovely flavour without affecting the texture of the lentils.
Soak half a cup of lentils in two cups of water overnight. The next day, pack a thick layer of damp paper towels on a plate. Drain the lentils and spread them out on the paper towels. Cover the lentils with another layer of damp paper towels and leave them at room temperature. Sprinkle water on the paper towels every 6 – 12 hours to ensure that they stay wet. When the lentils have sprouted, within 2 – 3 days, remove them from the paper towels and store them in a closed container in the fridge. Use within 7 – 10 days.
Even though one of the general rules for good nutrition is to stay away from processed and tinned foods, an exception can be made for pulses, including lentils. Since the cooking process takes a long time, vitamins that are sensitive to heat and processing will be reduced to the same extent through cooking as through processing to be tinned. The main nutrients in lentils are in any case resistant to heat, which means that the cooking process does not greatly compromise their nutritional value. However, it is still best to cook your own lentils.
If you don’t always have time to boil your lentils, especially if you need them chilled to use in a salad, you can boil the whole pack and freeze portions for later use. Make sure you use them within 3 months of freezing.
Lentils are the ideal base for a variety of stews and soups, but can also be added to any salad or stir-fry vegetable recipe to add flavour, texture and protein.
SPROUTED LENTIL AND AVO SALAD
- 1 bag lettuce (regular Iceberg works best) or ½ washed, torn lettuce
- 1 whole avocado, peeled, cubed and sprinkled with lemon juice
- ½ cup lentil sprouts
- 1 tablespoon chives, chopped
- Combine the ingredients in a shallow dish and serve with vinaigrette-type salad dressing.
CRUNCHY LENTIL SALAD
- 1 cup cooked, chilled brown lentils
- 1 cup cooked, chilled brown rice
- ½ red onion, chopped
- ½ cup raw broccoli, grated
- ½ cucumber, diced
- 2 green peppers, diced
- 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 small peeled green apple, diced
- 6 – 8 peppadews, diced
Combine all the ingredients. Refrigerate. Serve with honey and mustard salad dressing.
LENTIL AND CARAMELISED ONION DIP
- 1 cup cooked, chilled brown lentils
- ½ cup caramelised onions
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoonful molasses (alternatively, use 1 tablespoonful balsamic glaze instead of the vinegar and molasses)
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and use as a dip with celery sticks, cucumber slices, rice cakes or corn cakes. The mixture can safely be kept in the fridge for 7 – 10 days.
SPICY TOMATO AND LENTIL SOUP
- ½ pack of red lentils
- Salt (to taste)
- 1 tin Mexican tomatoes
Place half a pack of red lentils in a pot. Add double the quantity water. Bring to a boil, and boil for approximately 20 minutes until the lentils are soft. You’ll have to add some more water throughout – don’t let it boil dry. Add the tin of Mexican tomatoes and cook for another 10 minutes. If you want to thicken the soup add another half a tin of tomato, or if you want a thinner soup, add more water. Cook until the lentils are very soft, add salt and serve. You can add some garlic and a bay leaf to enhance the flavour.
CURRIED LENTIL BUTTERNUT
- 1 large butternut (very ripe)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 250 g mushrooms, finely sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup cooked green or brown lentils
- 100 ml plain low-fat yoghurt (optional)
- Fresh coriander leaves
Slice butternut in half (lengthwise), remove pips and brush with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Bake in preheated oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes until still firm, but almost cooked. Remove from oven and remove most of the flesh without damaging the skin. In a shallow non-stick pan, fry onion in remaining olive oil. Add mushrooms and chopped butternut when onions are golden brown. Add garlic, spices, salt and pepper. Add ±100 ml water, turn down heat and simmer until butternut pieces are soft. Add cooked lentils and simmer for another 10 minutes. Spoon mixture back into butternut skins. Heat filled butternut in oven. Serve with a dollop of plain low-fat yoghurt and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.