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21st century pulse: lentils

Categories: Expert guidance

To celebrate the International Year of Pulses, author and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler explores these nutritional powerhouses and shares her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: lentils

Puy, pardina, castelluccio; these are names to set a true legume lover’s pulse racing. They are the European pedigree lentils.

The speckled, tealy-hued lentils of Le Puy-en-Velay in the French Auvergne even have their own Protected Designation of Origin, revered and respected like a quality wine or cheese. The slightly peppery flavour of Puy lentils sings in simple salads and braises. I love to serve them Elizabeth David style, cooked in a light stock and served warm with butter, lemon juice and parsley.

The sweet and earthy, brown Italian celebrity comes from the Umbrian plains around Castelluccio and tastes wonderful in any tomato-based dish, while the tiny pardina lentil from Spanish Castilla y León seems to have an affinity with chorizo.

A glitzy black seed
Then there’s the Canadian beluga lentil—a relative newcomer to the A-listers—a glitzy black seed filled with flavour, that holds its shape beautifully once cooked. Other tiny lentils tend to keep their shape too, so if you’re making a salad or anything elegant where you require some definition and a bit of bite, these diminutive stars are what to look out for.

The larger, more ubiquitous country-cousins of the lentil world sit anonymously in their packets, but shouldn’t be overlooked. These bigger, flatter brown and green lentils seem to languish in the shadows nowadays, still drowning in earthenware helpings of 1970s worthiness.

They do break down into a creamy mush as they cook, but please cast aside any student-stodge memories and think aromatic, creamy stew with wild mushrooms or a good sausage. They may lack the glamour of their pert little relatives, but they are absolute winners when it comes to comfort food.

Bargain basement  
Red lentils are the bargain basement, beginner’s lentil and one of my favourites to cook with. They are quite simply split lentils with their brown or green coats removed. While the tiny lentils are held in shape by fibrous skins, the red lentil will collapse quickly into a luscious purée, making them perfect for dals and soups.

The ease and speed of cooking makes red lentils a great place to start when learning to prepare pulses and the lack of skin also makes them easier to digest. My daughter was weaned on a variety of creamed vegetables and lentils, and still adores a simple, spicy dal supper to this day.

Basic lentils are cheap and like other pulses can provide vital protein if you mop them up with a little bread or rice. The other great plus is that (in common with chickpeas, peas and beans) you digest lentils slowly, regulating your blood sugar and keeping you satisfied for hours (less guilty trips to forage in the fridge).

The danger is that having extolled quite so many virtues, you forget that lentils can taste amazing too. I hope that this Thai-inspired squash soup will get you started if you’re not already a lentil lover.