In the Middle East, India and Mediterranean countries, lentils are an essential, inexpensive meatless protein used in many dishes. In the US, most of us have them only when we heat up a can of lentil soup—what a shame! The good news is that finally interest in lentils in this country is growing. Chefs are serving them, and more specialty-food stores are featuring them.

What makes lentils special: They are loaded with nutrients and come in a variety of colors, tastes and textures. They cook faster than other legumes—and don’t need to be soaked. They are great either as the main ingredient in soups and salads or can be combined with other foods in vegetarian or meat dishes. Since I know how healthful lentils are but have no experience cooking them, I turned to Dana Jacobi, author of The Essential Best Foods Cookbook, to find out more about the impressive lentil. What’s more, she gave me one of her favorite recipes for a Red Lentil and Apricot Soup. Thanks to a blend of spices and fruit, it’s got a Middle Eastern flavor—and is just delicious. We think you’ll feel the same way about it…

WHAT’S IN THE LENTIL

Like beans, their legume cousins, lentils pack a nutritional punch. One-half cup of cooked lentils has about nine grams of protein and eight to 10 grams of fiber. They also are a good source of folate, iron, manganese and phosphorus. Lentils contain valuable antioxidant phytonutrients, particularly catechins and proanthocyandins.

Fiber-rich and cholesterol-free, lentils slow the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream and help prevent type 2 diabetes. They protect the heart by reducing blood lipid levels. Their high fiber content helps you feel full, making it easier to practice portion control and watch calories.

SELECTING LENTILS

There are hundreds of varieties of lentils. They come in a range of colors—from dull green…to red-orange…and even shiny black. Some lentils are sold whole, while others are split in half. Each variety tastes different, too—from comfortingly starchy to faintly sweet, grassy, earthy or even peppery.

Lentils are sold dried in bulk or packaged in plastic bags or boxes. They also can be found cooked and ready to eat in plastic pouches or cans, although canned lentils are wet and tend to be mushy.

Shop around and you’ll find, in addition to basic dried green and/or red lentils (which can be found at most supermarkets), lentils that are called Le Puy (or French Green)…Pardina…Petite Crimson…and Red Chief, to name just a few. Online, you can find a good selection of lentils at Timeless Natural Food (TimelessFood.com) and Purcell Mountain Farms (PurcellMountainFarms.com).

DANA’S FAVORITE LENTIL RECIPE

Red Lentil and Apricot Soup

  • 1 cup dried red lentils
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
  • ½ cup chopped Turkish dried apricots
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 18 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 4 Tablespoons pomegranate juice

Place the lentils in a mixing bowl. Fill the bowl with cool water, covering the lentils by two inches. Using your hand, swish the lentils until the water is cloudy. Carefully pour out the water. Repeat this two to three times, until the water stays almost clear. The lentils will be stuck together in a lump after the last draining. Push them into a large, deep saucepan.

Add to the pot the onions, tomatoes, apricots, ginger, garlic, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and pepper. Add four cups water. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer the soup, covered, until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Off the heat, mix in the cilantro and season the soup to taste with salt.

To serve, divide the soup among four deep soup bowls. Drizzle one-fourth of the pomegranate juice in a swirl in the center of each bowl. Serve immediately.

Makes four servings.