Become a Lentil Lover

By Sidra Forman, Best Life chef

Lentils don't get a whole lot of love from most people. Sure, we may load up on beans and peas, but a lot of people skip right by the lowly lentil, another member of the legume family. That's pretty unfortunate though, because these bean-like bites, which have a rich, nutty flavor, are high in fiber, protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc and calcium. And you get all these nutrients for relatively few calories-only 230 per cup.

Plus, they're easy to use and inexpensive. They're quicker cooking than dried beans, about 10 to 30 minutes depending on the variety and whether you want a firm or soft texture. And they come in a variety of colors—including, brown, green, black orange and red—each of which delivers a different flavor. Read on to find out what each tastes like and how to incorporate them into your diet.

• Black lentils are very small and are often used in traditional Indian cooking. They have a fairly strong earthy flavor and can be used in both hot and cold dishes, such as a side dish of back lentils and braised cooking greens or a cold salad with lots of fresh herbs dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

• Brown lentils are the most readily available. They have a slightly earthy flavor and hold their shape well. Take care not to overcook because they can become mushy. They're great added to soup.

• Green lentils are available in a couple of different varieties. All are quite flavorful and keep their texture after cooking. Because of their firmness, they are a good choice for cold salads.

• Orange lentils cook very quickly and become soft. If you want to maintain firmness and shape, you have to watch them closely and stir them because they can cook unevenly in the pot. The softer consistency is fantastic for thick soups and sauces, while lentils with a firmer consistency are good in cold salads.

• Red lentils are mild and are soft when cooked. They are best suited for purees, thick soups and sauces.

Most varieties are sold whole but you can sometimes find them split into halves, which makes for even quicker cooking times and a softer consistency after cooking. Many stores sell lentils in bulk bins as well as individual packages.

To cook lentils, first spread them out on a clean work surface or dish towel. Remove any small stones or debris that may have gotten mixed in during the harvesting and drying process. Rinse lentils in cool water for a couple of minutes before cooking. (Note that lentils should not be soaked overnight like many beans because they will become mushy.) Bring water, broth or other cooking liquid to a boil and then add the lentils. Once the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until they reach the desired tenderness. Check the lentils regularly because they do cook quickly and certain varieties can become mushy (for certain recipes, such as salads and some soups, firm lentils are ideal). If using the lentils in a salad, such as the one below, drain them when they're done cooking and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process.

Winter Orange Lentil Salad
Makes 4 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes

1 cup orange lentils
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon very finely chopped onion
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Spread lentils out on a clean work surface and remove any small stones or debris. Rinse lentils.

2. Bring a medium sized pot of water to a boil. Add lentils and reduce to a simmer. Cook until just tender, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes.

3. Drain lentils and run cold water over them. In a large bowl, combine lentils with remaining ingredients. Toss gently and serve. (This dish can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. If not serving immediately, do not add onions until just before serving.)/p>

Nutritional Information 
1 serving
Calories: 208
Protein: 13 g
Carbohydrate: 31 g
Dietary Fiber:  6 g
Sugars: 1 g
Total Fat: 5 g
Saturated Fat: 0.7 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Calcium: 52  mg
Sodium: 178 mg