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Lentils: A Legume For The Ages

As a comforting, versatile food quick enough for weeknight cooking, lentils will keep you well fed all winter. But they're especially good to eat this time of year. People in many countries eat lentils to ensure prosperity in the year to come. With 2009 still young, it can't hurt to try for riches of every sort — both earthly and spiritual. At the very least, you'll enjoy a rewarding meal.

Man has been eating tiny dried lentils practically since the beginning. Evidence of domesticated lentils dating to around 8000 B.C. has been found on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now northern Syria.

By 6000 B.C., lentils had reached Greece, where the legumes were regarded as poor man's food. The opposite was true in Egypt, where remains of lentils were found in the royal tombs at Thebes dating to 2400 B.C. A second-century fresco illustrates the preparation of lentil soup.

Along with the Egyptians, the ancient Romans and Hebrews commonly ate lentils, which are mentioned several times in the Bible — most notably in the Genesis story of brothers Jacob and Esau. Esau, the firstborn, sells his birthright to Jacob for some lentil stew.

Lentils remain a staple in Middle Eastern and Indian diets, and are popular in cuisines throughout the world.

As a superfood, they are rich in protein — without the fat or cholesterol of animal sources — and provide B vitamins, magnesium, iron and zinc. In fact, lentils have the second highest protein content of all legumes, after soybeans. Because they are so high in protein, lentils are often a meat substitute in vegetarian diets. Pair them with a whole grain, such as brown rice, and you have a complete vegetarian protein source, meaning all the essential amino acids are present.

The soluble fiber in lentils helps lower cholesterol and may benefit those at risk for heart disease and diabetes. Lentils are also an excellent source of folate, a vitamin that helps the body build new cells. It is an especially important nutrient for women who are either pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

In India, where roughly half of the world's lentils are consumed, cultivation dates back to 2500 B.C. Today, more than 50 different varieties are grown. Nearly every traditional Indian meal includes at least one lentil dish, and they are an important source of nutrients for millions of vegetarians on the subcontinent.

Indian cooks buy lentils hulled and split in order to make dal. This highly spiced sauce or stew is served with rice or flatbread. I pair red lentils, which are sold hulled and split, with Indian spices and potatoes for a dal-inspired soup. They soften and break down almost instantly, so it's only necessary to simmer until the potatoes become tender. Often derided as "mushy," red lentils are ideal for turning soups thick and creamy.

From the Near East, lentils eventually reached Western Europe. Grown in southern France, lentilles du Puy with round green seeds and mottled dark-green hulls became a favored ingredient in French bistro cuisine. They hold their shape during cooking more than other lentil varieties. Braised in red wine with diced vegetables and herbs, the lentils are at once lush and earthy. They make a striking match for roasted salmon glazed with grainy mustard and honey.

Lentils were introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century. They did not gain a foothold in American cuisine, however, until World War II, when lentils were promoted as an alternative to meat, thanks to their low cost, wide availability and nutritional quality.

Lentils are as good for the environment as they are for our health. Nitrogen-producing bacteria grow naturally at the roots, enriching the soil.

Though lentils are perfect for relaxed home cooking, it's important to note the different cooking times and textures of the various lentil varieties. Red lentils are the fastest, and firm types such as French and Spanish lentils (called pardina) require more time to soften.

If lentils have been stored longer than a year, they will be drier and will take longer to cook than a fresher batch. Follow your recipe's cooking time, but taste as you go to avoid lentils that are too firm or too mushy. Do not mix newly purchased lentils with the ones you've had in the pantry for a while. The stored lentils are likely to be drier, resulting in uneven cooking. Lentils do not require pre-soaking, but another rule of legume cooking does apply: Salt and acidic ingredients (such as vinegar and lemon) toughen their skins, so wait until lentils are tender before adding them.

Many lentil recipes, as well as package directions, advise you to "pick over" the lentils in search of small rocks and debris. This sounds daunting (and vaguely alarming), but it is quick work. For a fast examination, I pour my lentils into a measuring cup very slowly in order to catch any unsavory bits. To be even more thorough, spread the lentils out on a light surface and look them over until you are satisfied. Do a quick rinse in a colander, and quality control is complete.

Then, start any lentil dish by frying up sausage, bacon or, better yet, Spanish chorizo, and you have the makings of a deeply satisfying meal. Add a generous quantity of hearty greens, such as kale or collards, to create a one-pot dish. The combination of tender, earthy lentils and silky, subtle greens might help you empathize with Esau's unfortunate decision.

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Julie O'Hara