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Lentils information, history and recipes


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The lentil plant (Lens Culinaris) belongs to the family Leguminosae (legume)  and is a cousin to peas. The plants are grown for their seeds, which are contained in pods. The botanical name derives from their resemblance in shape to the lens of the eye. Often left to dry on the plant before they are harvested, they can be cooked in many ways as well as being ground into a flour. Although there are two types of lentil, the large-seeded macrosperma  and the Persian microsperma, which has small to medium-sized seed,  there are many varieties within these two groups. They are used in countless cuisines worldwide and are a staple in many middle eastern countries and India.


Origin and History of Lentils


The Lentil is one of the oldest cultivated legume, and is believed to be native to South Western Asia and Northern Syria.  There is archaeological evidence of their cultivation as early as 6,000 B.C.,  and seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 B.C.


The lentil has been an important crop from the earliest of times and was cultivated along with wheat, barley, peas, and flax. During the Neolithic period they spread to Greece and Bulgaria and during  the Bronze Age to the Near East and Mediterranean. They are mentioned in The Bible's first chapter, Genesis,  in the story of Esau who gave up his birthright for a dish of lentils (Genesis 25: 30-34). The ancient Greeks also enjoyed lentils, which they not only used in soups but also to make bread and Pliny wrote a description not only of the growing of lentils from seed but also their medicinal properties and the ways they were prepared and cooked lentils for various remedies. The famous Apicius also recorded several recipes for lentils.


Because lentils are rich in protein and carbohydrates and are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, iron and B vitamins they made a natural staple to supplement other sources of protein. The mass cultivation has lead to changes in the size with cultivars today producing larger seeds that their originals.


Cultivation and Processing Lentils


Lentils are an easily grown annual plant taking the same time as peas to mature. Although they prefer a sandy soil in a warm sunny sheltered position, many believe that the plant produces most seed when grown on poorer soils. Some varieties are quite hardy even surviving the cooler  growing conditions of countries like Great Britain.


Despite their potential as a commercial crop in  many countries, because they can be produced by using cheap labour in poorer countries,  their viability as a commercial crop in the western world is difficult due to the competition of cheap imports.  However, there is no reason why they shouldn't be grown in the home garden and allotment.


The plants are short with finely divided leaves,  flowers of red, pink, purple or white and carry pods which contain two seeds.  The green varieties have green or tan seed coats and green cotyledons. The red lentils have tan or pink seeds coats, and pink or red cotyledons.  The pods are left on the plant until they are dry and shrivelled at which point they can be harvested and shelled. No other treatment is necessary. If seeds are still moist,  drying can be completed in the sun, oven or a dehydrator.


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With commercially grown lentil crops, care must be taken in harvesting the lentil crop. Because the plant is very short (20 to 40 cm tall),  the swather (cutting blades) must be positioned as low to the ground as possible. Once cut, the lentil plants normally are ready to be threshed about one week after cutting.


Types of Lentils


As mentioned above, there are many varieties of lentil grown and eaten throughout the world, but the three most  common types used in cooking are brown,  red and green.


Brown lentils ,  also known as continental or Egyptian lentils, are generally the least expensive and more easily obtained. They are mildein flavour and hold their shape well after cooking,  although they easily turn mushy if overcooked. They can be cooked in about 35 minutes although if you want to ensure they remain firm, you can add oil to the cooking water and cook them for a shorter period, about 20 minutes


Red lentils  are less common  than brown lentils and have a slightly sweeter taste than the brown. They take a little less time to cook although they tend to become somewhat mushy and are therefore more suitable to soups and stews.



Green lentils, also know as Puy or French lentils, are the finest but most expensive lentils. They are the meatiest,  richest tasting and  remain quite firm after cooking making them an excellent choice for salads.  Originally grown in the volcanic soils of Puy in France,  the are now also grown in North America and Italy.

Two less common but interesting lentils which you many not have seen are Beluga Lentils which, as the name implies,  are black and once cooked they  glisten which makes them look like beluga caviar and White Lentils (skinned and split Black Lentils) which have a very smooth texture are suitable for chilled vegetable salads and stuffing mixes


Preparing Lentils for cooking


One advantage of lentils over other legumes is that they do not require soaking. You can soak them for a few hours if you wish and this will reduce the cooking time by about half. 


Before cooking with lentils it is advisable to rinse them in cold water and pick through them for any little stones which may be present.  When cooking lentils by themselves, in preparation for adding to a recipe or as an accompaniment, use 3 times the amount of water to lentils and avoid cooking with anything acidic, such as vinegar, as that retards the cooking process.  It is possible to substitute one type of lentil for another although you may need to adjust the cooking time.  Cookings times for the main three types of lentils are:-


Brown Lentils - 35 minutes

Red Lentils - 10-15 minutes

Puy (green) Lentils - 20 minutes


Lentils can be frozen but make sure you only partially cook them so that when they are defrosted and added to a recipe they retain some texture.



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