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How to Cook Lentils

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How to Cook Lentils

The right technique and a few flavor-boosting ingredients are all this pantry staple needs to shine.

Lentils are little gems. Versatile and economical, these tiny pulses — a term that refers to the edible seed of a plant in the legume family — are excellent sources of dietary protein. They’re also high in vitamin B and many trace minerals, including iron and zinc, making them powerful brain food.

Yet despite these nutritional boons, lentils are often overlooked and underrated. It’s true that they can be mushy, mealy, or bland when cooked incorrectly, but it’s easy to get them right.

Once you have this basic technique down, you’ll find that lentils complement many meals and hold their own as a key element in salads and soups. And because they take on the flavor profile of whatever they’re cooked with, they play well with a range of cuisines.

Cooked lentils will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week, so make a batch ahead of time and enjoy them in a variety of dishes. Most types will work in the following recipes, though the red lentils — which break down quickly — are best used for hummus and dal.

Lentils

Basic Lentils

Basic LentilsPhotography by Andrea D'Agosto; Prop Styling by Alicia Buszczak; Food Styling by Paul Jackman

Makes: 2 to 2 1/2 cups cooked lentils, or about eight servings
Prep time: five minutes
Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on variety

Ingredients

  • 1 cup lentils of your choice, rinsed well, and soaked if desired
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • Water
  • Lemon juice

Directions

  • Put the lentils, garlic, bay leaf, and salt in a saucepan, and add water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then decrease the heat to low. Cover and simmer until the lentils are tender (see table at left for specific cooking times). Remove from the heat, drain completely, and discard the garlic and bay leaf. Spritz with a bit of lemon juice and let cool to room temperature.

Tip: Presoaking dried lentils makes them easier to digest and increases nutrient availability. Rinse, then soak in 4 cups of hot water plus 1 teaspoon of salt for 30 to 60 minutes; rinse again before cooking.

Lemony Lentil Quinoa Salad

Lemony Lentil Quinoa Salad

Makes: six servings
Prep time: 10 to 15 minutes, plus two hours to chill

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1 tsp. grated lemon zest
  • ¼ tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 cup cooked white quinoa, cooled*
  • 1 cup cooked lentils, cooled
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 small English cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 2 tbs. crumbled organic goat’s or sheep’s milk feta cheese (optional)

Directions

  • In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and salt. Pour over the cooked quinoa, then add the cooked lentils, parsley, and mint. Toss with a fork until all ingredients are well combined. Chill for at least two hours.
  • Add the cucumbers and tomatoes and use a fork to gently combine. Add another squeeze of lemon juice or a pinch of salt to taste. Sprinkle with feta before serving.

Tip: For a nutritional boost, add 1 cup of arugula — rich with vitamins A and K — when you add the cucumbers.

* Lentils and quinoa can be prepared up to a week ahead. Find a basic quinoa recipe at “Quinoa: The Super Seed.”

Lentils With Roasted Beets

Lentils With Roasted Beets

Makes: four to six servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes to one hour, plus time for beets to cool

Ingredients

  • 2 medium beets, washed
  • 2 cups cooked lentils, cooled
  • 1½ tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided, plus more to taste
  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • ½ tsp. sea salt, divided, plus more to taste
  • 3 tbs. chopped fresh mint
  • 3 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • Black pepper to taste

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wrap the beets in parchment paper, then in foil, and roast for 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on size), until fork tender and fragrant. Remove from the oven; when cool, peel and cut into small cubes.
  • Toss the cooked lentils with 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt; let rest a few minutes. Add the beets and the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and ¼ teaspoon sea salt. Stir in the mint, parsley, and walnuts. Add one more pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, or a bit more lemon juice to taste.

Tip: This salad can also be warmed and served over arugula or spinach. The heat will gently wilt the greens. 

Lentil Hummus

Lentil Hummus

Makes: six servings
Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cooked lentils
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tbs. water
  • ½ tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 tbs. chopped parsley

Directions

  • Combine all ingredients except the parsley in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, about a minute. Add a pinch more salt or spritz of lemon to taste. Transfer to a small bowl and garnish with the parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. (Note: Using red lentils will result in a pale-colored hummus, as shown.)

Tip: If you can’t find a Meyer lemon, juice from regular lemons will do. Or mix 2 tablespoons each lemon and orange juice.

Why No Numbers?

Readers sometimes ask us why we don’t publish nutrition information with our recipes. We believe that (barring specific medical advice to the contrary) if you’re eating primarily whole, healthy foods — an array of sustainably raised vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, whole-kernel grains, and healthy fats and oils — you probably don’t need to stress about the numbers. We prefer to focus on food quality and trust our bodies to tell us what we need.  — The Editors

WEB EXTRA!

Red-Lentil Dal

Red-Lentil DalPhotography by Andrea D'Agosto; Prop Styling by Alicia Buszczak; Food Styling by Paul Jackman

Makes: six servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 tbs. organic ghee or extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 ½ tsp. black or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 onion, diced small
  • 1 tbs. minced fresh gingerroot*
  • 2 tsp. ground turmeric*
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin*
  • ½ tsp. plus pinch sea salt, divided
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes, or a 14.5-oz. can, drained and juices reserved
  • 8 cups vegetable broth (store-bought or homemade Magic Mineral Broth)
  • 2 cups dried red lentils, rinsed well
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cups loosely packed baby spinach
  • 1 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro or mint

Directions

  • Heat the ghee in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds; sauté until they begin to pop. Immediately add the onion, ginger, turmeric, cumin, and a pinch of salt, and sauté for about three minutes. Add the tomatoes and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and sauté for two minutes. Pour in 1/2 cup of broth and any reserved tomato juice to deglaze the pot, stirring to dislodge any bits stuck to the bottom.
  • Cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the lentils and stir; then add the remaining broth and cinnamon stick. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.
  • Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender. Stir in another 1/4 teaspoon of salt and simmer for five minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and stir in the spinach and lime juice. Serve garnished with cilantro or mint.

* Note: You can replace the ginger, turmeric, and cumin with 3 teaspoons of curry powder.

is the director of the Healing Kitchens Institute at Commonweal. She is the author of several cookbooks including The Longevity Kitchen, published by Ten Speed Press, Penguin Random House LLC, where some of these recipes originally appeared. She lives in San Rafael, Calif.

Photography by Andrea D'Agosto; Prop Styling by Alicia Buszczak; Food Styling by Paul Jackman

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