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The humble lentil

 Spare Change News (USA) 25 May 2019

(Originally published: 11/2009) A high protein and fiber, low fat and sugar food, lentils are an excellent addition to a healthful lifestyle. Though an annual plant, lentils are available year round in New England. Lentils are members of the legume family. They are shaped like disks and grow in pods that contain on or two seedlings. Once matured, harvested seeds are separated, dried and packaged for distribution. Lentil seeds are small and typically appear about half the size of other popular beans, such as red kidneys or garbanzos. Lentils are popularly consumed in many cultures variously in varieties that may be colored red, yellow, black, brown and green. (934 words) - By Robert Sondak

Lentils have a long and rich history that dates back at least 8,000 years. These vegetables were first grown in Neolithic times and later appeared in the gardens in Babylon. The practice of lentil cultivation subsequently passed to the Egyptians, who cerca 2,000 BC introduced the legume to the Romans and the Greeks. In Greece, lentils became popularized and enjoyed many uses. For example, Hippocrates, commonly revered as the father of Western medicine, prepared hot lentil dishes and prescribed them to treat liver alignments.


Meanwhile, in contemporary Boston lentils can be located in various forms at all of the major food retailers as well as local Indian food markets. Star/Shaw's and Stop & Shop sell prepackaged lentils only. The Market Basket in Union Square, Somerville sells both prepackaged and frozen lentils. The Harvest Coop Market sells prepackaged, canned and in-bulk lentils. As such, the Harvest market is the only store in Cambridge that sells red lentils in bulk. Whole Foods meanwhile, carries prepackaged and canned lentils. With the exception of Whole Foods all of the local supermarkets carry the Goya brand of lentils, which sells both red and green varieties. If lentils in large quantities are what you seek, a traditional Indian market may be the best place to go. Two such Cambridge-based stores, Shalimar Food and Spice in Central Square and Rajdhai Express on Rivers Street sell prepackaged 2 and 4-pound bags of red lentils, a variety commonly employed in Indian cuisine.


Lentils are very rich and flavorful as well as nutritious. They contain twice the amount of protein (26% or 17g/cup) than most grains, and follow only soybeans and hemp as the best source of plant-based protein. Lentils are also warehouses of other important nutrients. They contain high levels of dietary fiber, vitamin B1 (Thiamine), and Folate, in addition to the amino acids isoleucine and lysine. Lentils are also loaded with essential minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorous, cooper and potassium.


Due to the nutritional content of lentils, the legume can help to preserve good health in a variety of domains. For example, magnesium, one of lentils' minerals, plays an important role in cardiovascular health by improving the flow of oxygen and other nutrients like calcium throughout the body. Meanwhile, Folate helps to regulate amino acids (such as the aforementioned isoleucine and lysine), which are essential for the maintenance of a good functioning heart. Thiamine facilitates the conversion of blood sugar (glucose) into energy and is essential to the maintenance of the heart and for red blood cell formation. Lentils comprise the third highest source of Thiamine in the legume family, following garbanzo and naval beans.


If you are female or vegetarian, lentils offer some special benefits. They replenish bodily iron stores, which along with Thiamine can increase energy. Further, for people who are at risk for iron deficiencies, such as menstruating women, boosting iron levels with lentils is a healthy alternative to red meat, which is high in fat and calories. Women should also keep in mind that during pregnancy and lactation, the body's need for iron increases. Children and adolescents also have increased needs for iron as they physically develop and mature.


For all of their nutritional complexity, lentils are quite simple to prepare. To begin, simply boil ½ cup lentils and 2 to 3 cups water for 15 to 20 minutes. Next, drain the water and cover the lentils, keeping them warm. Cooked lentils will gradually form a paste that can be easily turned into a chili. For use in lentil soup, cook for twice as long, 30 to 40 minutes, and add twice the amount of water, usually 4 to 5 cups for each ½ cup of dry lentils. The different varieties of lentils may need to be cooked differently to achieve the desired effect. For example, black, yellow and red lentils become soft and mushy after cooking. On the other hand, greens lentils hold their shape after cooking. These go particularly well with tomato sauce or tomato puree.


Different cultures have traditionally emphasized different varieties of lentils in their cuisines. In India, the red lentils known as brown massador (unhulled with skins on) and massoor da (hulled with skins removed) are the most popular. The most common types of lentils available in the Unites States are either green or brown, which can be found at most major supermarkets.



Green lentils can typically be purchased for a lower price than red lentils. The green variety sells for $1.00/pound at the Harvest Coop Market. Meanwhile, the most cost-wise red lentils are the Goya prepacked brand found at the Harvest Coop markets for $1.75 to $2.00 per pound. Shalimar Food and Spice has 1 pound red lentils for $2.00 per pound.


This author has made a red lentil chili that can be sampled at his food booth at the Arlington and Quincy Farmers Markets. This author will also make red lentil chili for his forthcoming Cooking with Herbs Series at the Somerville Growing Center this summer.

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