Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
With the rise of vegan dishes, 'Meat-Free Mondays' and budget-friendly food, the so-called lowly lentil is lowly no more.
What was once known as a poor man’s food is slowly edging its way back into fashion – and it sits proudly in our cupboards as a Lucy Bee staple. In fact, thanks to the humble lentil’s rainbow hues and shed-loads of nutritional benefits, we think that they should be a staple in everyone’s cupboards.
Not convinced? Well, some pretty powerful people agree with us, with the UN even going so far as to name 2016 the International Year of Pulses1.
You see, as one of the most ancient foods known to man, we think that the lovely lentil should be taking pride of place on the mantel of healthy foods. Filling, tasty, cheap and nutritious, they tick pretty much every food box going – and don’t even get us started on how versatile they are.
From soups and stews to curries and even bologneses, lentils are always on-hand, even when the fridge is bare. Still not sure? You will be! Here’s why you should prepare to fall in love with the lentil…
Lentils (known as dal or dahl in India) are tiny little discs, which look like a baby pea, or a lens. In fact, the word lentil comes from the Latin for ‘lens’.
Although often seen as a lowly food source, the little lentil has been keeping the world going for thousands of years. In fact, they were a staple dish way back in prehistoric times – archaeologists have even found evidence of lentils being eaten 13,000 years ago and they can even be found in the bible. The book of Genesis tells the story of Esau, who gave up his birthright for a bowl of lentils and a loaf of bread.
Ever since, lentils have been steeped in history and culture. In many Catholic countries, this tasty pulse has formed a crucial part of diets during Lent. Meanwhile, those clever ancient Greeks loved their lentils, especially in breads and soups, with Aristophanes even going so far as to say: "You, who dare insult lentil soup, sweetest of delicacies."
So, where do these cupboard essentials come from? Well, they’re thought to have originated in the Near East or Mediterranean, before making their way around the world. Nowadays, they’re popular across the globe although they are mainly produced in India, Turkey, Canada, China and Syria. Surprisingly, since 2005-06, Canada has become the largest lentil exporter in the world, accounting for over 80% of global exports2.
The lentil plant (a bushy, low-growing plant that can survive on very little water) comes from Asia and North Africa and the lentils themselves – the seeds - grow in small pods.
Lentils are particularly wonderful as they can withstand drought-like conditions and sizzling temperatures, as well as cooler weather, which makes them an ideal food in countries such as India. However, these hardy pulses still thrive better in droughts than in rain-soaked soil, and they don’t like extremely cold winters.
They grow two to a pod and are usually harvested in August, or late summer. Before they’re gathered, the crop must dry out on the vine, preferably without the aid of chemicals. They’ll then be passed over with a combine, which cuts the plant from the ground, separates the seeds and places the lentils into a storage bin.
Although it all sounds fairly straightforward, the harvesting of these special pulses is carefully timed – go too early and you’ll get an underdeveloped crop. Too late, and pods will be overly dry, meaning they’ll shatter during harvest. Once harvested, they can take a week or even longer to get dried out (lentils are considered dry when they have a moisture content of just 14%) before going on to be sold, either whole or split in half.
Here at Lucy Bee, we’re massive fans of growing your own. From colourful, fresh fruits to earthy root veg, fragrant herbs and even our own eggs, we love to eat foods straight from our garden. Amazingly, you can grow your own lovely lentils – and it’s fairly simple to do.
Interested? Well, all you need is a handful of lentils (just the everyday ones you buy at the supermarket, nothing fancy), a glass jar with a lid (perfect for recycling those Lucy Bee jars!), a cotton cloth, a flower pot, some soil and a little bit of love and time.
From burnt oranges to sunshine yellows and inky blacks, lentils come in a beautiful rainbow of colours. As you probably already know, there are a huge array of varieties, although the most common types of lentil are brown, red, green and Puy.
In fact, there are actually hundreds of varieties of lentils, with at least fifty cultivated for food. Most lentils tend to have an earthy, almost nutty flavour, although some types will even have a peppery touch, which means there’s pretty much a lentil to suit every dish known to man.
Want to know how to use them, and what their main differences are? Here’s our very own Lucy Bee guide to lentils…
Red Lentils –
One of our ultimate favourites, these popular pulses are very similar to yellow lentils and tend to almost melt down to form a rich puree when cooked. Commonly used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, they have a mild, almost sweet flavour.
However, be warned - red lentils don’t hold their shape very well and can become quite mushy quite quickly. For this reason, avoid them in recipes you want to taste “meaty” (lentil-based shepherd’s, veggie moussakas, veggie burgers and lentil roasts).
Instead, try using them to thicken or bulk up dishes such as soups, curries and casseroles. They also really come into their own when making Indian dhal. Happily, they’re also the fastest-cooking lentil (about 12 to 15 minutes), which makes them perfect for us time-pressed foodies.
French or Puy Lentils –
These small, grey-green lentils get their name from the region of France they’re grown in, Le Puy. They’re often slightly pricier to buy but have a firmer texture and tend to hold their shape much better when cooked.
They have an almost peppery, yet creamy, taste and are ideal for bulking up soups and salads. However, since they’re a little firmer, they also make a fantastic accompaniment to fish, game or even sausages. Just remember that these little lentils will take slightly longer to cook – think 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how al dente you want them to be.
Black Beluga Lentils –
Small, shiny and black, Beluga lentils look a little like caviar and are similar to Le Puy lentils in both shape and texture. Since they stay fairly firm, they also taste delicious in salads (try paring them with vibrant veggies, such as carrots or radishes for an eye-catching dish), as well as fancy blinis and appetisers. Beluga lentils also take around 20 to 25 minutes to cook.
Brown or Green Lentils –
One of the most common lentil varieties, these mild, earthy lentils have a lens-like shape and can be used in all sorts of dishes. While they cook pretty quickly (about 20 minutes), these lentils sit slap bang in the middle in terms of texture – they’re firmer than red lentils, but softer than Le Puy and Beluga.
For this reason, they’re ideal for creating vegetarian or vegan dishes seem meatier – think soups, pasta sauces, lasagnes and shepherd’s pies.
If you’re on a budget, then lentils are one of the healthiest, most nutritious foods you could ever hope to load your shopping trolley with. Low in calories yet packed with body-loving goodies, these little pulses are perfect to boost your health. Here are our favourite health benefits of these little lovelies:
These amazing pulses work wonders on lowering the amount of bad cholesterol3. You see, while they may be small, they’re pretty mighty and pack in huge amounts of soluble fibre - perfect for anyone who’s been told to watch their cholesterol. In fact, studies have shown that eating just one serving a day of beans, peas, chickpeas or lentils can significantly reduce 'bad cholesterol' and therefore the risk of cardiovascular disease.
All that fibre is also wonderful for the heart - tonnes of studies have shown that eating high fibre foods can reduce your risk of heart disease. Better yet, lentils are also rich in folate and magnesium, which are perfect nutrients food for happy hearts. Impressively, folate lowers your homocysteine levels, which can contribute to heart disease, while magnesium improves blood flow throughout the body.
In fact, in a multi-national study that looked at food intake and risk of death from heart disease, researchers found that legumes were associated with a massive 82% reduction in risk4.
Yep, that fibre is at it again – eat a bowlful of lentils and your digestive system will love you for it. Lentils contain insoluble dietary fibre, which helps to ease constipation and other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. Because of how lentils can slow down digestion, it also means this perfect pulse is fantastic at balancing out blood sugar levels.
Lentils are a staple food in veggie and vegan diets – and here’s why. Around 26% of calories found in lentils are thanks to protein, which makes them a great body-building and lean muscle building food, especially in meat-free diets.
If you want plenty of rocket fuel, then lentils are a great food to add to your diet. As a source of complex carbs and fibre, eating up your lentils will ensure you have plenty of slow-burning energy throughout the day. These happy little pulses are also packed with iron, which transports oxygen through your body and boosts both energy production and metabolism.
Lentils are loaded with nutrients and goodness, yet are still low in calories and fat, making them a weight loss wonder. Amazingly, one cup of cooked lentils only contains about 230 calories but still leaves you feeling full. On a diet? Ditch it and eat plenty of these babies instead!
Like rice, many people can feel a bit overwhelmed when it comes to cooking lentils. Yet, so long as you stick to the cooking times (see our estimates above), they shouldn’t turn into a pile of mush, and if you play your cards right, you’ll be left with a beautifully tasty, fragrant dish.
Happily for us busy bees, lentils can be prepared the day of serving since they don’t need to be pre-soaked. However, before washing and preparing your lentils for cooking, you should always sift through them first to check for small stones or debris (this has been known to happen to us before – unless you want a trip to the dentist, check them!). Once you’ve done this, run them under cool water to clean and then drain.
Once you know how, lentils are incredibly easy to cook and enjoy. To boil and cook your lentils, simply pour three cups of water into your saucepan for each cup of lentils. Worth remembering is that lentils placed in boiling water are easier to digest than those brought to the boil.
Once your water is boiling, simply turn the heat down to a simmer and cover, sticking to the cooking times we mentioned above.
Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll just want to eat boiled, plain lentils for dinner! If you’re going to serve them on their own, then drizzle them with a little dressing. A Lucy Bee tip: a knob of grass-fed butter and a heap of spices goes a long way.
If that still sounds a little dull, then here are some of our other favourite ways to enjoy this healthy pulse:
Think going meat-free is boring? Think again! Lentils can clump together when cooked, which means they make great meat substitutes in an array of dishes. We like to mix ours with onions, herbs and spices to make “meatballs”, use in vegan bologneses, or toss into casseroles, stews or even shepherd’s pies to replace the meat.
There’s nothing more comforting than snuggling up with a bowlful of soup on a cold, blustery day. We love to bulk up our soups – and add flavour, texture and a nutrient powerhouse – by tossing in lentils.
Perk up summer salads by adding a healthy dose of pulses. Le Puy lentils work especially well with salads and crunchy vegetables and taste delicious when drizzled in beautiful, fresh dressings and scattered with herbs straight from the garden.
You’ve heard of meatloaves, so why not try a veggie, purse-friendly take on this classic, mid-week dish? Walnuts and lentils combined may sound odd but they taste great in place of meat in this dish. Enjoy!
Tired of chickpeas in hummus? Try tossing in lentils to create your hummus base mix instead. Red lentils blend up particularly well and taste delicious with smoky flavours and spices.
If we’ve whetted your appetite and you’re in look of some lovely lentil recipes, then fret not. We have you covered! Why not try some of our Lucy Bee family favourites for a delicious – and nutritious – new meal? These recipes always see bowls and plates licked clean in our house.
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Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.