You gotta love the lentil.
The small, lens-shaped legume lets its showy cousins, the bean and the pea, take the spotlight. But cooks the world over know that lentils are an easy and quick preparation with a unique flavor. This is a food that plays well with others.
From a nutritional standpoint, lentils are hard to beat. High in fiber and protein, they also are loaded with folic acid, iron, phosphorus and potassium, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lentils also are low on the glycemic index.
The flavor and texture of lentils are distinct from other legumes', but hard to describe. Joel Mertens, an executive chef in Tacoma, Wash., said the flavor has an earthiness with an almost meaty texture. Like most chefs, he appreciates the lentil's ability to meld with other flavors and uses them in a wide variety of dishes.
"Lentils remind me of my childhood when my mother would make lentil-and-sausage soup ... the smell of the kitchen and the memories of being called into the house for dinner from playing outside in the tree house," Mertens said.
Food and features writer Stacee Sledge, of Olympia, Wash., makes lentil tacos for her husband and two kids. "I love that it's a healthier version of the greasy beef-and-taco-seasoning-packet recipe I grew up on in Iowa. Substituting lentils for beef means no guilt, it's cheaper to make, and tastes just as yummy. Call me a convert."
The Palouse region of Washington state and Idaho grows 25 percent of the lentils in the United States, according to Pete Klaiber, director of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. The organization supports agricultural research, product research and marketing.
Lentils are so big in the Palouse that Pullman, Wash., holds an annual National Lentil Festival each August.
Festival director Amberly Boone said the event started 24 years ago because "It was a wonderful bragging point for Pullman and something we should celebrate. Not just Pullman, but the whole Palouse."
The festival kicks off with a 350-gallon bowl of lentil chili ladled up free to festival-goers. "It's actually stirred by a canoe paddle," Boone said.
It gets stranger. Festival-goers can enjoy a lentil-pancake breakfast and top off their meal with lentil ice cream. "It's good, though. It really is," Boone insisted.
Though gaining in popularity in the U.S., more lentils are exported than consumed here. Klaiber said 70 percent of the Palouse crop is exported, mainly to India and Spain.
A large part of the lentil's appeal is its quick prep and cooking time. Unlike beans and other legumes, lentils do not require presoaking, only washing. After that, they cook in 15 to 30 minutes.
Though lentils come in a wide range of types, the newbie lentil cook can start with three main varieties:
Brown lentils: These soften easily, making them ideal for soups.
Green (French) lentils: These stay firmer when cooked and have a more distinct flavor. Use in salads.
Red lentils: A pretty pink when dried, they turn yellow when cooked. With a mild and sweeter taste, they are used in purees and Indian daals.
1 finely chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Shredded cheddar cheese
Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until softened. Add lentils, chili powder, cumin and oregano, then cook and stir for a minute or two.
Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Check lentils for doneness at 35 minutes; it can take as much as 45 minutes. Uncover and cook for a few minutes until any remaining moisture dissipates.
The lentil preparation can be used in tacos, burritos or tostadas.
Swirl a bit of sour cream onto a tortilla and then heap about 1/4 cup of the lentil mixture on top of that. Top with a bit of shredded cheddar and a dollop of salsa. Sliced red onion can make a flavorful and colorful garnish.
-- Stacee Sledge
Lentil Salad With Warm Goat Cheese
5-ounce log of quality fresh goat cheese
1/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 cup French green lentils
1 teaspoon salt
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup finely minced celery
1/2 cup finely minced carrot
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup snipped chives, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
12 slices baguette, cut diagonally
Cut goat cheese into 4 or 5 equal pieces and place in a baking dish just large enough to hold them. Cover with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.
Put the lentils in a saucepan and add cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add the salt and the thyme sprigs, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Adjust the heat to a low simmer and cook until lentils are just tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and remove thyme.
While lentils are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the celery, carrot and garlic and saute until softened, about 5 minutes.
In a bowl, combine the drained lentils, sauteed vegetables, remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup chives, 2 tablespoons vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat broiler. Toast baguette slices on both sides.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Bake the goat-cheese rounds until they are warm and jiggle a little when touched, about 6 to 8 minutes. Divide lentils among 4 or 5 plates. With a spatula, place a warm goat-cheese round on each mound of lentils. Top with a bit of snipped chives and drizzle of oil from the baking dish. Put 2 or 3 toasts on each plate and serve immediately. Serves 4 or 5.
-- Leann Willard, Bayview (Wash.) School of Cooking
Caramel Lentil Brownies With Sea Salt
1 cup cooked lentil puree
2 cups flour
2 1/3 cups sugar, divided
3/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1/2 cup caramel ice-cream topping
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
Sea salt for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, stir flour, 2 cups of the sugar, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Beat in water, oil, lentil puree and half of the vanilla. Pour into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
In a small bowl, beat remaining sugar with caramel topping, cream cheese, egg and remaining teaspoon of vanilla. Swirl through brownie batter with a knife.
Bake 25-30 minutes, or until a knife tests clean when inserted into center. Sprinkle with sea salt. Allow to cool, then cut into squares and serve.
-- Joni Hilton, The National Lentil Festival