Looking For A Protein That Never Swam Or Walked?

The brew had been stronger that morning than usual and rather than helping me focus, I was bouncing around like a bunny.  Distractions, the enemy of all desk-bound, were everywhere and were luring me towards them. And so, like any reasonable person, I gave in to them.  I took my To Do list, left my desk and went to the farmers market.

A farmers market in New York in January is a bit like a Sample Sale on Day 5 –  inventory is tired, expectations are low, shoppers move slowly.  The kale lay limp, tinged with the brown sting of frost; apples at one stand were huddled together under a thick blanket to keep from freezing; pears were already showing signs of storage fatigue; vapor wafted from a hot cider pot, warming the air but doing little to remove the chill.

I’d come to the market for inspiration for a lentil dish.  A jar of them had been sitting on my shelf, its contents looking for work. But inspiration was elusive. The carrots were not the delicate, thin-fingered variety with voluminous green hair, but stocky ones, hard working carrots with dirt under their nails.  The celeriac (celery root) was shrunken, the mushrooms were cold, the beets mid-hibernation. But these were to be my muses.

Blue collar carrots and yellow fleshed beets.

Bug-eyes celeriac and dirty creminis.

If constraints enhance creativity, I had no excuse.

Some interesting things about lentils*:

  • “Lens culinaris” is their Latin name due to their disc shape, which also gives us the word for the piece of glass/plastic we put over our eyes.
  • Lentils have the 3rd highest protein by weight of any plant (25%), after soybeans and hemp, but unlike those two, are virtually fat-free. A half cup of cooked lentils has 10g of protein, about the same as a smallish piece (2 oz) of salmon.
  • But all protein is not alike. The protein in lentils (though excellent for you) is nutritionally speaking “incomplete”, meaning it’s missing a couple essential amino acids. (Salmon’s protein is complete as is meat and poultry.) You can get these two missing amino acids, though, by eating lentils with grains/rice, thereby creating a “complete protein”.**
  • They’re also exceptionally high in fiber (helps ferry food through the intestines and stabilizes blood-sugar), folic acid (essential for pregnant woman but also helps lower heart disease in all of us), magnesium (largely involved in proper nerve and muscle function) and iron (helps move oxygen efficiently through the body). It has twice as much iron as other legumes, such as beans or split peas.
  • Lentils make you gassy because the starch is not easily digested and hence must be broken down by intestinal bacteria that gives off carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The best way to lower the gas? Lower the starch. Cook them slowly and for a longer period of time – say 45 mins vs 20 which is all they require. (Some people also suggesting soaking them (which cuts cooking time by hydrating them), but I don’t believe cold water does much to break down starch.)
  • Soaking also releases the phytic acid that can inhibit the absorption of minerals.

As day faded to night, the farmers disassembled their stands, re-filled trucks with unsold goods and counted their cold cash. And I was home giving life to lentils***. The final result: “January Lentil Stew”. I’m a biased chef, it’s true, but this dish was outstanding. (The secret ingredients – red wine and fresh tarragon). See the finished product.

Your favorite ways to enjoy lentils?  Any “unique” ingredients that often find their way into your dish?

*Some of these nutrition facts are from here.
There are twenty two amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Eight of these (called “essential amino acids”) can not be made by the body and hence must be derived from food. The two essential amino acids missing in lentils are methionine and cystine. Both of these are found in high quantities in grains, making legumes and grains highly complementary foods.  Many cultures have intuitively known this for centuries and often combine the two in order to get complete protein (think “dal” for example, the Indian dish of lentils and rice.)
*** Here is an good site that reviews the different types of lentils and when you might want to use which kind.

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  • es4d

    New reader – love love LOVE this site! I’ve been catching up on older posts and would love to comment all over the place, but think it would probably fall on deaf ears….but great stuff! please keep it coming!
    isn’t quinoa a complete source of protein? it has all the right amino acids and omegas? (although you can’t use it for this recipe – obvs)
    to answer your question….the whole foods near my work makes this red lentil dhal (sp?) mash that is out of this world! every time they make it i spend the small fortune and try to eat as much as i can. i would LOVE to find the recipe for it, but alas it is not on their site. they list the main ingredients, but there has to be more to it: red lentils, tomatoes, chard, onion, garlic, tumeric, cumin, cayenne, garlic, salt.

    • Michelle

      It’s never too late to comment -even on older posts! People are stumbling across older ones all the time, leaving comments and continuing the conversation. And I personally see every single comment, even if it were left on a post written months before!

      As for quinoa, it is technically not a grain as it does not come from the grass family. Rather it’s a “chenopod” (which interestingly beets and spinach are as well!) But you’re right, it’s a very good source of protein (about 12-18% of the quinoa is protein) and yes, it is a complete protein meaning it has all of the amino acids. So by all means, eat it with the lentils for a super charged meal of protein!

      Re the dal “mash”, given that it’s mash, sounds like they just cooked all those ingredients and tossed them in a blender! I would definitely try to recreate it at home – tweaking any ingredients you feel need tweaking.

    • Josh

      new reader here too. I’ve been making lentil curry for some months now, basing my recipe on a lot of different recipes and youtube videos. the basic process follows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6RYB9RW1ZU although i do make substitutions: green lentils instead of red, canola oil instead of ghee, yellow onion instead of red, chili flakes instead of fresh chiles, a more complex spice blend that also includes cinnamon, clove, fennel, and fenugreek along with the cumin and coriander (all toasted in a pan and freshly ground), and chopped chard. The chard goes into the pot with the cooked lentils after turning off the flame, using only the residual heat. I tried collard greens as well but they taste too much of chlorophyll. I eyeball the spices according to how i’m feeling that day, so it comes out different each time. it’s really open to interpretation, as i’m sure you know most regional recipes evolved out of necessity and availability, so use what you can. watch/read a bunch on your own (google is your friend…) and see what you like and what you feel comfortable with. Anything you come up with should be fine or at the worst, a learning experience.

  • http://thefalconerswife.com The Falconer’s Wife

    Hi – I found your blog through the Huffington Post and really enjoy your writing style and topics. I haven’t cooked much with lentils (normally I go for rice and barley), but your post has inspired me to give them a try!

  • petula

    love your blog! introduced to it when it was featured on refinery29 – haven’t stopped following since.
    I just tried making lentils for the first time last week – it was a curried lentil soup using french lentils, onions, carrots, garlic and pureed chick peas. Turned out delicious with some fresh bread and definitely a meal! Would love to try new recipes since as i look forward to using more lentils in my cooking after learning more of its benefits.

  • Alex

    I like making lentil soup with dried apricots.

  • http://www.amysfoodroom.com Amy Andrews

    Hi Michelle! Stumbled into your post on Twitter — love your writing. Hope to see you again soon! Keep up the great work.

  • http://prasadabeauty.com Lisa G

    Really great post!

  • http://www.planithealthier.com Deirdre Holmes

    Lentils are a frequent visitor to our dinner table. We eat many varieties, prepared in different ways. My all time favorite lentil dish is one I had every day during a hot summer at a “work camp” in Spain. It was the first course of a large mid-day meal: very brothy, lightly, yet deliciously flavored, and always decorated, at the table, with a splash of vinegar. Still trying to replicate it..

  • Jenny Desmond

    Mujhaddara is my favorite way. Crisped onions with spiced yogurt over lentils and rice. (The trick is to brown the onions, carmelize until golden then let the bottom layer turn dark brown over high heat by not stirring for 2 to 3 minutes)

    I often do brown or wild rice rather than Jasmine and you can spice your yogurt anyway. Sometimes I make it super spicy and pretend yogurt is sour cream, topped with Cilantro for a faux-Mexican meal but most often I mix the yogurt with Cumin, Coriander, Cinnamon & Paprika.

    Eating lentils for a few days is a great “broom” for your system too, which feels good in this season of few greens and heavier meals.

  • http://www.urbanhomesteadx.com Jamie

    I love cooking with red lentils, in particular, because they turn soups into beautiful hues of orange! I am getting ready to post a recipe on my blog for a red lentil chili (with beef) served over cardamom brown rice. Perfect for these frigid temperatures. Great website, btw!

  • Catherine S

    I love cooking French de Puy lentils in a little salted water, draining them and tossing them with sauteed carrot, celery, and fennel, and then tossing it all with a Dijon vinaigrette and serving over arugula. Mmmmm. Otherwise, I cook a ton of red lentils with SE Asian flavor combos (coconut milk, turmeric, mustard seed, cumin, cilantro).

  • Anne

    Hi Michelle! I make those lovely little puy lentils with herbes de provence, then drizzle them with a little olive oil, sherry vinegar and a dash of sea salt. Served with steamed broccoli and a baked sweet potato, it’s one of my favorite winter meals.

  • Mary B

    Hi Michelle, I do love your writing, but as I have read several of your readers comments, I am not the only one! I am new to this “new” healthy way of cooking and eating, I live alone, do you have any pointers on what to cook, I am not really a red meat eater, Thanks

    • Michelle

      Though I will on occasion eat meat and poultry, I, like you, use it more as a “side dish”. Here’s what I eat as the main attraction: a lot of soups (I wrote about Barley Vegetablee as well as Squash Soup); vegetable curries (also wrote about one here, to which I usually add tempeh or tofu); a lot of simple vegetable saute dishes (kale is a bit of a go-to veg which makes its way into many things I cook, here is one recipe I use a lot.

      I also eat fish and if I’m going to cook it at home, I love nothing more than a very simple piece of wild salmon that I marinate (ideally for an hour but less is fine) in olive oil, miso, garlic, ginger, and a touch of brown sugar. I then bake it for 10 min and eat it with a side of quinoa. Divine and so simple.

      Though you live alone, don’t let this stop you from cooking for more than one! After you’ve eaten your portion for one, put one or two servings in the fridge for meals over the next couple days and then freeze the rest in single size servings, for easy thawing.

  • Jacquelyn Hoag

    Because I had heard that lentils, along with millet, were high in iron, I introduced them to my almost yr. old baby in soup, during his first winter, as first “big people” solids.

    • LaraChick

      me too! found a great recipe for “rustic soup” which is more like a stew, w/lentils, mung beans, spelt, barley, carrots & onions…yum!

  • Mary B

    Hi Michelle, do you have any tips on purchasing lentals? Is there any difference in buying from the supermarket that are usually sold by the pound, or from the health food stores? Thanks

    • Michelle

      I buy mine in bulk from Whole Foods – the quality is high and they are very inexpensive. My only recommendation for buying, is to buy from a store which has high turnover, which usually translates into fresher food. I don’t think there is any need to buy premium priced lentils. Buying bulk from a reputable vendor will serve you well.

      As for which ones to buy – depends on what you’re cooking. The small French Lentils (greeney blue in color) that I used for this dish and that are photographed, stay quite firm even when cooked for a long period of time, so they’re great for a cold salad kind of dish or any dish where you want the lentils to keep their form. If you’re going for a softer consistency (for soup perhaps) or are going to be blending them for say a dip or other use, the red are a great choice as they can get quite mushy when cooked. Here is a site that reviews the different types of lentils in a little more detail.

  • http://healthygirlskitchen.blogspot.com Wendy (Healthy Girl’s Kitchen)

    It’s hard to believe that I used to hate lentils. Now they are a staple of my (now vegan) diet and I’m lovin’ them! I’m lucky because a local restaurant makes the most delectible (did I spell that right?) lentil soups–red lentil with indian spices, french lentil with fennel–yum!

  • Judith Johncox

    Hi, I really enjoy this site and…………

    I Love Lentils…..

    For some reason they always make me feel strong.

    My favorite is to put the lentils in the pot , add some carrots,celery,onion, and any other veggies that I have on hand. cover with water or veggie stock. Add some tomatoes, usually canned in any form but fresh is fine also. Splash in some vinegar, crumble in cumin seed with fingers, add a little oil. Cook until tender. Add Salt or Kelp and pepper to taste.

    Heat some oil in an iron frying pan. When hot, carefully pour in the lentil mixture. Stir and mash with potato masher ( like refried beans).

    Serve as tacos in hot tortillas. Have chopped onion, tomato, lettuce or sprouts, on table, along with some grated cheese.
    This dish is very easy, filling and good tasting. Bon Appetit

  • http://www.thetableofpromise.blogspot.com The Table of Promise

    This is great. I had heard about ‘complete’ proteins versus incomplete, but I was never sure what that meant. Lovely!

  • Bethany

    I just discovered your blog through the Huffington Post article about so called “healthy” foods, which are actually more like junk food. With that being said, I’ve been enjoying reading your blogs, even though I’m supposed to be working. :-) I’m excited to try making your lentil stew even though I don’t like to cook. :-/ I’m trying to create and maintain a healthier lifestyle this year and into the future. Thanks for the knowledge and suggestions, and I can’t wait to read what’s next!

  • Tony

    For years I’ve enjoyed “my” lentils by first soaking overnight in a sprouting jar, then after a day or two (or immediately) I saute them in olive oil just shy of crispy, them mix with grated Romano cheese, cayenne, and salt to taste. Great side dish or comfort food lunch!

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    Your writing is beautiful. And to have a winter farmers market at all is a very lucky thing.

  • http://www.healthyeatingforordinarypeople.com Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger)

    I am SO jealous. I live nearby in NJ, and the farmers markets near where I live all shot their doors in October. How I wish I had some local produce now, even if it was slim pickings!
    I love lentils too and am always looking for new ways to use them. this recipe looks wonderful. I would have never thought of putting beets in a stew, but that must work so well. Thanks!

    • Michelle

      The beets were a delicious addition, although given the power of the lentils from a color perspective, the lovely yellow beets did lose some of their glow post cooking and took on a bit of a brownish hue. But they still tasted divine.

  • http://feministchristian.blogspot.com/ Luna

    Ah lentils. I so wish I could eat them. I have never found any that weren’t processed in the same factory as a gluten grain. I get so very sick, even with washing them (so do my Celiac kids, so it’s not just me and my psychosomatic body! :))

    Ever hear of a clean source of lentils? Because we sure miss them around here!

    • Michelle

      The one thing that I immediately thought of when I read this, is … is it perhaps the gas-causing properties of the lentils that you are reacting to and not the traces of gluten? It seems that the minute amount of gluten that might be present, should not present a problem from a gluten intolerance standpoint. The gas factor can be troubling, but I have also found that the more often I eat lentils the less the gas-problem seems to be. (It’s as though my system gets used to the starch in lentils and digests it more easily over time.) It also helps to soak them overnight and cook them slowly for over an hour.

      It seems like a shame to give up on such an extraordinary food when perhaps you don’t have to.

      Just a thought ….

  • Chelsea

    Is there a “print” option for your recipes? Each time I print, I use too much paper and get the picture…am I just not seeing it?
    I Love your blog and send it to all my peeps! thank you!

    • Michelle

      Unfortunately not at this very moment, but I am working on it so stay tuned. Sorry about the hassle of the photo coming out and it being printed on multiple pages. This is not a perfect solution, but one option is to cut and paste only the text portion into a blank email or word doc and then print that. Imperfect for sure, but may be better than wasting paper.

  • Carol

    Could you comment on the different types of lentils and their uses?

    • Michelle

      They are generally classified into: brown, red, and green (and black if you count the more rare “Beluga Lentils”). The ones I used for this recipe were green French lentils (also called “puy lentils”. This kind keeps their form very well even when “well” cooked. So it’s also a good option for say a cold lentil salad. The red ones tend to get quite mushy when cooked so you may want to choose them if you’re going to be blending the lentils for a dip, or using them for soup where you may want them softer. This site takes a look at each, discusses some uses as well as recommended cooking time for each.

  • Maggie

    When I was a little girl my Great Grandmother would make Lentil soup. I remember helping her break spaghetti into 1″ long pieces to add to the lentils as they cooked, and she seasoned it with herbs and a little salt and olive oil. It was simple but delicious and filling.

  • Rick Lee

    Another outstanding article – many thanks

  • moni

    LOVE IT!

  • Sonya

    If you’re a lentils fan (or legumes of any sort…beans, chickpeas, peas), as noted in the post, it’s not a “complete” protein. But this is easily resolved! Combining legumes with grains or nuts/seeds, will provide all the amino acids necessary to make a complete protein.

    Some suggestions are below (none of them will surprise you…there’s a reason these “combinations” have become standards!)
    red beans + rice
    chickpeas + cous-cous
    toast + peanut butter
    felafel + Pita bread
    beans + corn chips
    hummus + pita bread
    baked beans on toast
    tabouli + mixed bean salad
    Lentils + rice!

    • Michelle

      Great list! I loved seeing “baked beans on toast” – having lived in London (where it is a breakfast favorite to millions of kids!) I finally “got” the appeal of this delicious breakfast dish. The other one that could be added to the list is vegetarian chile (made with kidney beans) + corn bread.

  • Ginny

    “Blue collar carrots.” With “dirt under their nails.” Gorgeous. Love it, love you!

  • andi

    i love love your website!
    regarding the protein issue you mentioned.. i am newly vegan and was quite freaked out about the whole protein thing for a long time. but after some research i found these articles.. i found them very helpful and thought i would share.



  • Kate

    If it’s Tuesday and it’s winter, it’s a pretty good bet that lentil soup is on the menu in my household. My secret ingredient: duck bacon. D’artagnan makes this specialty bacon and it adds a smokey, salty, surprise to what otherwise mirrors Marcella Hazan’s recipe pretty much to a T. A crusty baguette, boule or homemade crostini and mixed greens round out a supper that pleases the whole family.

    • Michelle

      So it’s not just pigs that get credit for creating bacon! I had never heard of duck bacon, but can imagine it would be divine.

  • Marj

    I had noticed references to legumes producing gasses. . .and thought I would share a way of preparing beans of all kinds that my family has always used. I’m a new reader so maybe you already know this. There is a hot-water soluable chemical in beans that causes people “intestinal distress,” but it is easily destroyed with this method.

    Soak all beans overnight in clear, cold water. In the morning drain the beans and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boiling point. Drain. Repeat this twice more. Then prepare beans for baking as you normally do.

    I have a wood cookstove(I live in Maine) so pots of beans can be easily prepared and used for all manner of chilis, soups and stews, and other wonderful concoctions. I never have any complaints.

  • guest

    I made this soup (w/ kale) over the weekend and it was incredible! thanks for a great recipe.

    • Michelle

      Oh, I”m so glad! Recipes are a very personal thing, so I’m always thrilled when a dish that I love is loved by others too.

  • Margaret

    Acid reflux runs in my family and most folks at our table can’t stomach lentils. One dish they can stomach though, is sprouted lentils. Our favorite lentil dish is a salad with red quinoa, parsley, cucumber, tomato, red onion, feta, tossed with a lemon-red wine-garlic dressing. We have tried cooking lentils at a slower time as well, however they still have turned some tummies. I’m determined to find more ways to incorporate lentils in a low-acid vegetarian dish.

    • Michelle

      Very interesting, that when you sprouted them they did not upset your stomach. Did you cook them after you sprouted them or just had them raw and sprouted?

      There is a lot of interest in sprouted grains and legumes these days, due to all the added nutrients sprouting brings – definitely no longer a fringe thing! I am going to be doing a post very soon on sprouted grains, so look for that and I would love your feedback.

      • Margaret

        Looking forward to reading your next post! I have a small sprouter that sits beside the sink, always filled with mustard, alfalfa, and radish sprouts. Lentils are quite easy. We just soak them in water overnight, drain, rinse, and toss in the salad. I haven’t tried cooking them after soaking overnight yet. It might make a difference.

  • Lisa s

    What are your thoughts on canned lentils vs dried? I’m a single mom with limited time, so the quick and easy appeals. I read somewhere that the canning process does not reduce the nutrients in lentils as it does with other vegetables. What do you think?

  • Andrew

    Lentils in fact do have *all* the essential amino acids- but two of them are designated as ‘deficient’ in Lentils. Your body will still create protein from them, just less. Since you are getting other proteins sources throughout the day, most likely, your body should use most of it.
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_protein

  • Flor

    I am a new reader and already a fan. I love lentils my favorite lentil soup is very simple. Its a basic vegetable stock, celery, onions, carrots, chopped cilantro, a hint of tomato paste and the occasional dropped eggs.

    • Michelle

      Thanks Flor and welcome! I love the sounds of the egg. I know that Asian cooking uses eggs a lot in broth type soups but I’d not heard of it used with lentils. May have to try it in my next batch!

      • Flor

        Thanks! I hope you like it. Yes, like an Egg drop soup. I stir until I have some egg ribbons and allow the rest of the eggs to “poach” and cook through. We dont like the yolk to be runny. I usually add one egg per person. It is also a must when I make red or black bean soup.

  • http://monex.to/ Monex

    In fact lentils were mentioned in the Holy Bible as an item that Jacob traded for his birthright. The lentils were also introduced in India and become their famous dish. To elaborate further the claim there was a long study that took 25 years to conduct among 16 000 middle-aged men in different countries like Japan Greece Yugoslavia Finland and United States whereas diet patterns of selected participants were analyzed and the risk of death from heart disease..They found on the data gathered that legumes can reduce the risk of heart disease by 82 .

  • Lisa

    Awesome pics! Great site..first time visitor:)

  • Anna Marie

    i looooved the lentil stew. thank you!

    • Michelle

      Oh I’m so glad!! And thank you so much for saying so! It’s great to get feedback on recipes since flavor combos are such a personal thing….

  • Pingback: Lentil and Potato Pot Pies with Rosemary Biscuit Crust | Life Currents()

  • Alex

    Lentils are very big here in Canada. I mix lentils with rice in even parts, by weight, and cook the mixture as though it were pure rice in a rice cooker – they’re too difficult to eat on their own, and somehow with rice they just sort of get amalgamated into the bulk, so you can’t tell they’re there. Eat ’em with baked beans, and maybe a tomato or a carrot and BAM, that’s lunch for about a dollar.

    I honestly don’t know why more people don’t do this.