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Leery of lentils? You're not alone. Many people try to stay away from this protein-packed legume, but chef Aine McAteer reveals preparation tips and recipes that can turn anyone into a lentil lover.
I bought my first bag of lentils about 35 years ago. At the time, I was working as a chef in a pub in London. It was in my early days of becoming a vegetarian, and I was looking for alternatives to meat. Those days, we didn't have cookbooks to refer to for ideas on cooking such foods, so being a creative soul, I got to experimenting and discovered lentils.

Occasionally, I would sneak my lentils into the pub dishes like steak and kidney pie in place of the meat to see if anyone noticed. If I told those beer drinkers in advance that they were eating lentils, they probably wouldn't have gone within a mile of the stuff, but once they had eaten and enjoyed it, they were always intrigued—in fact, it became a topic of conversation around the bar or the pool table. I've had so many similar experiences over the years that I've learned that there are certain words I'm best avoiding, especially when preparing foods for more traditional folks who prefer to stay within the realm of the familiar.

While shopping for a client in a health food store in London a few years ago, I was approached by a young woman who looked like she had just lost her best friend. She was holding a bag of lentils and asked me in a very sad voice if she could speak to me for a moment. (I obviously looked like I knew what I was doing as I had a cart overflowing with food.) She said she had just been to a nutritionist who told her to omit all sugar, dairy products, meat, bread and sodas from her diet and to eat these, she said, holding out a bag of lentils. The poor lady felt like the bottom had fallen out of her world. All that was comfortable and familiar to her had suddenly been taken away, and she was entering a strange and unusual world with no map in hand. Sadly, this is often the case: People are told not to do this and that, but aren't given any real guidelines or reasons to be excited about the alternatives. I left that store with a sense of having a mission in life.

Find out what makes lentils so good for you and how to cook them to perfection
Ever since I discovered my first bag of lentils, I've been on a mission to explore ways to make grains, beans and other vegetarian staples irresistible. These foods are packed with nutrients vital to good health, and I strongly recommend becoming proficient in preparing them for yourself and your family. Not only are they inexpensive, but once you get the basics down, they're versatile and make a wonderful palette for you, the culinary artist!

Why Lentils?

Lentils, like other members of the legume family, are wonderful dietary sources of protein. They don't contain all the amino acids to make them a complete protein, so combine them with whole grains to get their full protein benefits. Because of their high fiber content, lentils also help lower cholesterol, support healthy digestion and help stabilize blood sugar levels. They are also high in magnesium (vital for heart health and many other functions in the body), contain vitamin B6 (which supports the health of the nervous system and hormonal health) and are a good source of iron and folic acid (both especially vital during pregnancy).

Shopping for Lentils

You can find lentils in the bulk bins in most health food stores, and many companies sell them prepackaged. As long as they're not exposed to too much light and kept in sealed containers, they'll store well for up to 12 months. Once cooked, they'll keep fresh in covered containers in the refrigerator for three to four days. Cooked lentil dishes also freeze well.

Cooking with Lentils

Lentils are easy to prepare and versatile—and unlike other beans, they require no soaking, so they're great staples to have around for quick, healthy meals. As a general rule, when cooking lentils and all other beans, never add salt or other salty seasonings until after the beans have become tender, as the salt will toughen them and it will take much longer for them to cook.

There are dozens of varieties of lentils cultivated; the most commonly used are green lentils, puy or French lentils and whole or split red lentils. The green and puy lentils retain their shape after cooking, whereas the smaller red lentils become mushy, so they form a great base for soups.

Read about the 3 most common types of lentils and how to prepare them
Green Lentils

Green lentils are the most commonly used variety of lentils and lend themselves to many dishes. If you want them to hold their shape in a dish, don't cook them longer than 30 minutes. They can be used in stews, soups, salads and casseroles.
I also make a lovely lentil loaf with them, which is a great vegetarian substitution for meat loaf. Simply cook the lentils and add lots of finely diced onion, celery, breadcrumbs, fresh herbs or spices and your favorite seasonings, then press into a loaf pan and bake. For loaves and salads, use 2 cups of water to 1 cup of lentils; for soups, use about 4 cups of water to 1 cup of lentils.

Whole green lentils can also be sprouted, which enhances their nutritional value and makes them an excellent source of important digestive enzymes.

Red Lentils

Red lentils are small, orange-colored lentils that come either split or whole. The split lentils are the most common and make a great base for soups, as they have a lovely creamy consistency when cooked. They cook in 20 minutes.

Red lentils are commonly used in Indian cooking to make dahl or sambhar, which is a spiced South Indian dish traditionally served with steamed rice cakes called idli. I use them to make my client's favorite Golden Lemon Lentil Soup.

Puy Lentils

Also known as French lentils, puy lentils are one of my favorites to use in salads. They're a small, brown-colored lentil and can be cooked the same way as green lentils.

One of my favorite salads is puy lentils mixed with roasted sweet squash, baby spinach leaves and black olives with a simple olive oil, lemon and soy sauce dressing. If you eat cheese, it's delicious served with feta cheese sprinkled on top.

I strongly encourage you to be creative, experiment and enjoy the many health benefits of these humble legumes! My Golden Lemon Lentil Soup is one of my staples, as it's so quick and easy to prepare. As an alternative, you can use less water, so you have more of a stew-like consistency and serve on a bed of brown rice or quinoa for a delicious dinner.


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