Lentils in the sack at Machane Yehuda (photo credit: Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)

Lentils in the sack at Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Sophie Gordon/Flash 90)

What’s not glamorous, but still has millions of fans around the world? Inexpensive, but rich in nutritional value? The answer is the lentil — a little legume that the Bible tells us made a stew so tempting that Esau sold his birthright for it.

One of the oldest foods on the planet, lentils have been cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, Europe, Asia and the Near East. Ancient Egyptians believed they enlightened the mind, and according to Rashi, the renowned medieval French commentator on the Bible and the Talmud, lentils were traditionally served to mourners because they represented the life cycle, with no beginning and no end. Among many Catholics, lentils were standard Lenten fare for those who could not afford fish, and in India, lentils still play an integral part in marriage rituals.

In this day and age when health experts exhort us to lower our meat consumption and up our protein from the plant kingdom, lentils are a real boon; they have the highest protein content in all the vegetable kingdom after soybeans, and are especially rich in minerals like zinc and manganese, B vitamins — especially pantothenic acid (B5), niacin (B3) and folic acid (B9) — and are a great source of nutritional fiber.

And while it’s true that most beans may be difficult to digest, you’ll find that lentils are the easiest of the lot; they don’t even require pre-soaking to make them more digestible. Adding cumin, crushed coriander seed, fennel, anise or dill seed to the recipe will help prevent and alleviate any bloating or gas.

Although in Israel we’re familiar with brown, green and red (skinned) lentils, there are actually many other kinds around the world  that vary in size and color, such as tiny black-green Verte du Puy, a delicacy in France, and pink lentils, eaten mainly by Muslims in northern India and Pakistan. Green and brown lentils retain their shape after cooking (unless overcooked), and can be partially mashed and served as soups, salads or side dishes, made into veggie burgers or added to stews. Red-orange lentils have a somewhat sweeter taste and puree very easily, useful for soups and mashing, as well as for dal or hummus. Pair them up with a (preferably whole) grain like rice, bulghur or quinoa, and you’ve got a complimentary protein that makes a satisfying, warming and delicious lunch or dinner.

NOTE: Whole lentils are easily sprouted by soaking overnight, draining and placing in a strainer over a bowl. Rinse two to three times throughout the day, and you should see sprouts within a day or two. Add them to salads or soup, just before serving time, or add to a soup towards the end of cooking time.

Rosemary-scented lentil and barley stew (Serves 2-4)

This incredibly delicious recipe is adapted from a 1971 edition of The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, by Jean Hewitt.

  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped (about ⅓ cup)
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • 2 ½ cups peeled and chopped fresh ripe tomatoes
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • ⅓ cup barley
  • Salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
  • ½ sprig fresh rosemary, or a large pinch of dried rosemary to taste
  • 1 small carrot, grated
  1. In a large heavy pot, heat the olive oil and saute the onion over medium-low heat until tender.
  2. Add the celery and cook five minutes longer.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients except for the carrots, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 25 minutes, or until barley and lentils are tender. Stir occasionally.
  4. Shut off the heat, add the carrots and let stand undisturbed for five minutes to steam the carrots.