09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: America's Got Lentils

The folks of Pullman, Washington have it right. Instead of focusing on the latest celebrity hook up or meltdown, they'd rather pay tribute to something homegrown, honest and fundamentally good for you. That's why they hosted the 21st annual National Lentil Festival this past weekend.

Lentils are the friendliest of the legumes. They require no overnight pre-soaking and cook up quickly. The folks in Pullman must be pretty friendly, too. They're the nation's largest producers of lentils, responsible for a hefty 150 million pounds each year -- there's a reason to party.

Festival events included a parade, the tour de lentil 100k bike ride, a lentil pancake breakfast, a lentil cook-off, the new lentil golf tournament and everybody's festival favorite, the giant bowl of lentil chili, 200 gallons of it ladled up for free. If that seems like a lot of fuss over a bunch of little brown pellets, you're missing the point. Lentils keep it real.

Earthy and umame, that satisfying, savory flavor people crave, lentils are called the poor man's meat, but provide more nutrition than any animal. Disc-shaped lentils (from the Latin for lens) may be small, but they're loaded with protein (1/2 cup of dried lentils has 9 tasty grams). A serving of lentils also provides 90 percent of your daily requirement of folic acid, plus a generous dollop of all those things you know you need -- complex carbs, soluble fiber, iron and vitamin C.

Lentils are cheap and nutritious yet fashionista-friendly. There's your basic brown variety, Pullman's specialty, but also chic French green lentils (lentils du puy), teensy beansy Indian red lentils and exotic black beluga lentils. Just as they come in a palette of colors, so do they vary in size, from the wee to the infinitesimal.

American Idols rise and fall. So do their judges. You can spend your time and synapses trying to keep up with who's getting burned in Hell's Kitchen or honor something with some serious history. Lentils date back to 800 BC Babylon (predating even Cher).

You needn't be a celebrity chef to prepare them, either. Unlike diva-like pinto beans, inclined to overpower whatever they're added to, minuscule, mellow lentils are content to be background, lending themselves to spicy, soul-satisfying curried lentils in fall, warming lentil soup in the winter. In they spring, they can burger and now, they can cool themselves down in and star in a summer salad. Dried lentils keep in the pantry indefinitely, so they're ready whenever you are. They're a legume for all seasons. No wonder the folks in Pullman were ready to party.

If you missed the festival, no worries -- lentils are a joy forever. Check out award-winning recipes from lentilfests past or start with this one -- lentils paired with August's bounty of greens, dolled up with herbs and topped with an optional poached egg. It's easy, luscious and madly chic. But underneath, lentils are as they ever were -- totally real.

Totally Real Lentil Salad Topped With a Poached Egg

1-1/2 cups dried lentils
3 cups water or vegetable broth
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
a few whole peppercorns
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 small bunch tarragon leaves (about 3 tablespoons)
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup white wine or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons honey
sea salt and pepper to taste

2 carrots
2 ribs celery
2 scallions
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 egg
4 cups arugula or spinach leaves

Pour water or broth into a large pot. Add garlic cloves, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring to boil. Meanwhile, rinse lentils and discard any pebbles or grit. Add lentils to the water, return to boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until just tender, 20 to 30 minutes (time will vary on the type of lentils you use).

Make vinaigrette. Chop tarragon leaves fine, discarding stems. In a small bowl, measure in mustard and pour in olive oil in a slow stream. Whisk until combined. Add tarragon leaves and lemon juice. Add white wine or vegetable broth and honey. Whisk until combined.

Drain lentils. While lentils are still warm, pour them into a large bowl. Pour vinaigrette over all. Stir gently to combine. Dice carrots and celery, chop scallions fine. Stir into lentils. Recipe may be prepared up to two days ahead up to this point. Keep lentils covered and refrigerated.

An hour before serving, remove lentils from refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature. Place arugula or spinach on a platter and mount lentils on top or gently mix greens into lentils and serve in a bowl.

To poach egg, take a small saucepan and fill halfway with water. Place on high heat and bring to rolling boil. Add the tablespoon of vinegar. This helps the egg keep its shape. While still at boil, gently crack an egg and slip it into the water. In less than a minute, the egg white will coalesce. When it does, take a large spoon and spoon the water over the egg. Reduce heat to medium high and continue gently bathing the egg for another 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how firm you like your egg. Remove from the water with slotted spoon and place on top of lentil salad.

Serve with French baguette or whole grain bread

Serves 6.