Lentils: Heart Healthy and Quick Cooking

Last time I talked about beans and how good they are for your heart. Since February is Heart Health Month, I thought it would be apt to discuss another member of the legume family that is “heart healthy” and has the added benefit of being much quicker to prepare than beans. I’m talking about lentils.

According to George Matlijan in his book The World’s Healthiest Foods, “A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirms that eating high fiber foods, such as lentils, helps prevent heart disease….Lentils’ contribution to heart health lies not just in their fiber, but in the significant amounts of folate and magnesium these little wonders supply….Want to keep your heart happy? Eat lentils.”

Lentils have been cultivated and eaten by humans since the Neolithic Period. They are of particular importance in the cuisine of India, where they are often the basis for dal, a spiced dish made of lentils or other beans. Actually, in India, “dal” is the generic name for all dried peas, beans and lentils as well as the dishes made from them.

There are numerous varieties of lentils in colors including red, yellow, orange, green, brown and black. The most common are brown lentils, although you can usually find red and green lentils as well. You can also substitute yellow split peas for lentils in some recipes.

Unlike beans, it is not necessary to pre-soak lentils. In addition, most lentils take only a half hour or so to cook, meaning you can take them home and make a meal out of them the same day. We often do this at my house when we are stumped for something to cook. Our favorite are the French green lentils. They are delicious just cooked alone and then seasoned with a little soy sauce and a dollop of sour cream.

Cooking lentils is simplicity itself. To prepare, wash your lentils in a strainer under cool running water. Bring three cups of water to a boil for each cup of lentils. Add the lentils to boiling water and reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Lentils will take about half an hour to cook, depending on the variety and how soft you want them to be. Some people like their lentils on the firm side, especially if they are to be added to a soup. Others like them mushy, especially if they are making dal.

Lentils may also be sprouted, as you would any other seed. Sprouting makes them easier to digest by converting starches to simple sugars and activating enzymes.

Here is an easy recipe for a hearty and nutritious soup from the original Vegetarian Epicure cookbook by Anna Thomas. This cookbook has been out of print for years, which is unfortunate because it has a number of simple and delicious recipes like this one.

Lentil-Tomato Soup

2/3 cup dried lentils
4 cups water
1 onion, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery. Chopped
1 cup tomato paste
chopped parsley
salt and pepper
dill weed
dry white wine (optional)

Put the first 5 ingredients in a large pot and simmer gently for about 3 hours, replenishing the water as needed. If you have a taste for it, try adding a little dry white wine. Then, tasting to see what quantity is right for you, add very small amounts of the herbs and spices. Finally, stir in the cup of tomato paste and let it all heat through. Serves 6.