Lentils – scientific name, Lens culinaris – are an annual dicotyledonous plant, of the Fabaceae family, cultivated since ancient times for their edible seeds, and are rich in protein and in iron.
Lentils are among the oldest known pulses, as it has been established that their cultivation dates back to 7000 B.C., in Asia. They later spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, becoming one of the dietary staples for the Greeks and Romans, so that even Marcus Porcius Cato came to dictate certain rules for cooking them in the best way. Lentils are also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, where Esau, son of Isaac, sells his birthright to his brother Jacob, in exchange for none other than a steaming plate of lentils.
Lentils provide a good amount of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates. They are also rich in minerals, such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and iron, as well as vitamin A, B1, and B2. They are very digestible pulses and contain almost no fat.
In Italy, the best known are the brown ones, although there are regional varieties that are green or blond. In Asia, red lentils are the most widespread, and there is also a coral variety that is very fine and delicate, which is sold decorticated.
Customarily, they are served as a side dish to meat, or with the traditional Italian New Year's zampone, a stuffed pig's trotter, but in reality they are a viable alternative to animal proteins. To be used in first courses, soups, or salads, either at room temperature or cold. Coral lentils (seed coating removed) split on their own during cooking, and are suitable for creams and quickly made purees, and are also suitable for young children.
Lentils do not require prior soaking, even if it might be advisable for the larger varieties; a couple of hours would be sufficient. In any case, place the lentils in a bowl of water, remove any that float to the surface and put the rest in a saucepan with plenty of cold water. Slowly bring the water to a boil, skimming off the foam as it forms on the surface, and continue cooking for 20-60 minutes, depending on the size, and if they are decorticated or not.
Pay attention to the cooking times because lentils tend to fall apart and can easily become overcooked. Salt them only once they're cooked.
Despite their low cost and easy availability, lentils are often called “the steak of the poor.” This is because they contain 25% protein, in addition to their 53% carbohydrate supply. From a nutritional standpoint, it is possible to state that 100 grams of lentils are equal to a good 215 grams of meat. As if this were not enough, lentils are considered a lucky dish, as is known to most Italians – an example of this is the Italian tradition of eating them on New Year's eve.