- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TEL AVIV, Israel — Lentils may not be high on your shopping list these days, but if you read on, you might just reconsider. Quick, delicious, nourishing, inexpensive and easy to prepare, lentils are an ancient food still perfect in the modern world. And they are versatile.

Probably the most famous legume in the Bible, the little lentil once made a stew so tempting that Esau sold his birthright for it. Throughout history, the lentil has served as a metaphor for a host of mystical, symbolic, spiritual and practical meanings, as well.

Cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, lentils may not have been glamorous, but they were always held in high esteem.

The ancient Egyptians believed lentils enlightened the mind, and in Jewish tradition, lentils were traditionally served to mourners to represent the life cycle, with no beginning and no end.

In Catholic countries, lentils were standard Lenten fare for those who could not afford fish, and in India, lentils still play an integral part in marriage rituals.

From a nutritional standpoint, lentils (whose name comes from the Latin lens), have the highest protein content in all the vegetable kingdom, after soybeans. They are super-rich in minerals such as zinc and manganese, with a range of B vitamins, especially pantothenic acid (B5), niacin (B3) and folic acid (B9).

Easier to digest than chickpeas and kidney beans, lentils don’t even require soaking to make them more digestible. Still, if you’re wary of side effects, add a little cumin or coriander to your recipe, and you’ll find it makes a significant difference.

There are dozens of kinds of lentils, varying in size and color. They include brown lentils, common in the United States; small green lentils, a delicacy in France; green, brown or red (husked) lentils, popular in the Middle East; and pink lentils, mainly eaten by Muslims in northern India and Pakistan.

The type of lentil you’ll want depends on the type of dish you want to make, but it’s a good idea to keep a variety on hand.

Green and brown lentils will retain their shape after cooking and can be served as soups (stir frequently and mash some with the back of a spoon to thicken), salads or side dishes; made into burgers; or added to meat, poultry and vegetarian stews.

Red lentils (actually quite orange in color) have a somewhat sweeter taste and puree very easily; they are useful for soups and for mashing into purees such as hummus.

All lentils cook up quickly, with no presoaking necessary. Pair them with a grain such as rice, bulgur or quinoa, and you’ve got a complementary protein that makes for a satisfying, tummy-warming and delicious lunch or dinner.

Note: Whole (unhusked) lentils are easily sprouted and may be tossed into a salad, or added to a soup toward the end of cooking time.

The following dish recalls the red lentil stew so fragrant and tempting that, according to the Bible story, it won Esau’s birthright for Jacob. For a meal in a bowl with complementary protein, serve atop steamed basmati rice.

Cumin-scented stewof red lentils, chickpeas and pumpkin

This recipe is from “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking” by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (HarperCollins).

1 cup red lentils, picked over and washed

1 carrot, scraped and cut into diagonal slices

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 to 2 cups peeled pumpkin or butternut squash (see note)

½ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

1½ teaspoon ground cumin

3 garlic cloves, pressed

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger (or 3/4 teaspoon dried)

15-ounce can chickpeas, drained

1/3; cup chopped fresh Italian flat parsley or cilantro (leaves of coriander plant), to garnish

Place the lentils in a pot, and cover them with water. Swish them around, then drain and cover with fresh water. Repeat until the water runs clear. Transfer to a pot with 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Partially cover (or the pot will boil over), and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the vegetables, salt, spices and chickpeas; partially cover and cook 30 minutes or until the stew is thick. Stir gently from time to time during the cooking process.

(If the stew is too thick, or if serving over rice, add boiling water and thin to desired consistency. Let cook 5 minutes longer. If too thin, remove the cover and slightly raise the heat, if necessary, to evaporate excess water.)

To serve, divide among bowls and garnish with parsley or cilantro. Makes 6 servings.

Note: To facilitate peeling the pumpkin or butternut squash, make a few slits in a large piece of pumpkin (or use the bottom bulb of the squash) and place in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes, or until just soft enough to peel.

Cool slightly, remove seeds, peel and cut into chunks.

Rishta (Lebanese lentil and noodle soup)

This green lentil and barley recipe makes a satisfying side dish. It may also be served as a vegetarian main dish with or without grated cheese sprinkled on top.

The recipe is adapted from the 1971 edition of “The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook” by Jean Hewitt.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1½ teaspoons ground cumin

1½ teaspoons ground coriander

2 cups brown or green lentils, picked over and washed

1 bay leaf

8 cups water

3 garlic cloves, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup broken vermicelli, egg noodles or whole-wheat spaghetti

Heat the oil in a skillet, and saute the onion till translucent. Add cumin and coriander; saute for another minute over medium heat. Set aside. Place the lentils, bay leaf and water in a large pot, and bring to a boil. Partially cover, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add garlic, salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings to taste. Just before serving, bring back to a simmer and add the noodles. Cook until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes, depending on type of pasta. Serve at once in bowls. Makes 6 servings.

Green lentils and barley with tomatoes and rosemary

This recipe is from “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking.”

½ cup French green (or regular green) lentils

1/3; cup pearled barley

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped celery

2½ cups canned whole tomatoes, cut into pieces

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch dried rosemary, optional

½ cup shredded carrots

Place the lentils and barley in a pot; cover with water. Swish them around, drain and cover with fresh water. Repeat until the water runs clear.

In a medium pot, heat the olive oil and saute the onion until tender. Add celery, and cook 5 minutes longer. Add remaining ingredients except the carrots, and bring to a boil; cover and simmer 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove cover, add carrots, and cook 5 minutes longer or until barley and lentils are tender. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings.

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