Making the Case for Lentils

Chef and cookbook author Kim O’Donnel makes an impassioned plea for the perfect climate-friendly, nutrient-rich food.

My personal mission statement reads something like this: Enjoy every day as if it were the last; cook often and teach others who don’t know how; and make sure everyone I meet gets a spoonful of lentils.

I see the lentil as a kind of culinary humanitarian. From Azerbaijan to Trinidad (and many locales in between), lentils are valued for providing, nourishing, keeping us regular, and keeping heart attacks at bay. They’re revered everywhere—but here. The United States is among the top 10 lentil-producing countries, yet American eaters—even in the lentil-rich Palouse region of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho—are relative strangers to these dried legumes. Although U.S. lentil sales were up 11 percent in 2016, this cooking teacher is seeing the opposite in her classroom of reluctant home cooks who have no idea how to prepare them.

What’s the deal? Is it because we’ve been subjected to decades of tasteless, mushy lentil soup from a can? Do we have collective PTSD from too many lentil loaves foisted upon us in the 1970s and ‘80s?

Here’s why we should get reacquainted with lentils:

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1. They’re cheap. Not cheapskate or tacky—and an excellent value for fuel and nutrients. Whether it’s soup, mujadara, or dal, lentil dinner for four costs only about five bucks. (Try doing that at the drive-thru window.)

2. They’re easy to make. No presoaking (or pre-planning) is required, as is the case with beans and nearly every other legume. Just wash and go. These petite discs take no more than 40 minutes to cook (about a third of the time it takes to cook a pot of dried black beans). I always recommend that people who want to learn to cook beans start with lentils, which I like to think of as the training wheels of the legume world.

3. They’re a superfood. One cup of cooked lentils contains about 18 grams of protein, putting them second in line after soybeans. They’re loaded with fiber—a serving has more than half of your daily requirement—and are a folate boon if you’re preggers. And they have iron, too—more than a third of what you need every day.

4. They’re flavor chameleons (like chicken!). You want Indian curry in your lentils? Sure thing. Ethiopian berbere? No problem. Feta and tahini? They’ve got you covered. In my three cookbooks, I’ve turned them into Italian-style polpettine (AKA meatballs), mashed and refried them for nachos, stirred them into cookie batter, and puréed them into a fancy pâté that I strut out for holiday parties.

5. They’ve stood the test of time. If age means wisdom, the lentil is smarter than all of us. As food historian Ken Albala writes in his book, Beans: A History, “the lentil is an ancient sentinel among beans, weathered, time-worn, and tolerant of the harshest conditions. Without it, the course of human history might have been entirely different.” Along with ancient wheat varieties such as einkorn and emmer, the lentil is among a small group of crops that were first domesticated about 10, 000 years ago, feeding early civilizations such as the Sumerians living on the Fertile Crescent. I believe it has endured for millennia for the good of humanity.

6. They’re good for the earth. Legumes like lentils are known as nitrogen fixers, which in farming lingo, means that they can draw their own nitrogen out of the air and don’t require farmers to apply loads of synthetic fertilizer. In the wet months, nitrogen is known for running off fields and into waterways and oceans, where it causes dead zones. When it’s over-applied it also often ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent contributor to global warming.

In our new world of regularly occurring climate-fueled natural disasters, the lentil can provide sustenance when all we’ve got is a pot and a camping stove to feed ourselves. Perhaps, as we build our emergency supply kits in preparation for the Next Big One(s), we should consider including the lowly—but mighty—lentil.

O’Donnel, who published PNW Veg:100 Vegetable Recipes Inspired by the Local Bounty of the Pacific Northwest in May, read a version of this essay last month at Lit Crawl Seattle.

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  1. Tuesday, November 7th, 2017
    They are indeed all of the above, but unless you buy organic, they are a heavily sprayed crop. In addition, they use glyphosate as a pre-harvest desiccant.
  2. Tuesday, November 7th, 2017
    I love finding articles like this that highlight food items I use myself pretty often. Yet they get overlooked far too often in general society as delicious, versatile and affordable natural food sources with many health benefits for its consumers. Hope people see this and share it and then use it!
  3. Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
    Thanks for sharing this article. Lentils are great for our health. We should use new agricultural technologies to boost growth of the agriculture industry.
  4. Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
    Hooray for lentils and Kim~ !

    Your wine braised lentil shepherd's pie is always a big hit.

  5. Wednesday, March 7th, 2018
    Thank you for the helpful information. I use a crockpot for all meals, except breakfast. Lentils are a favorite, here!