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Lentils: Inexpensive Protein Powerhouse and International Recipe Darling

Posted: 01/13/12 04:58 PM ET

Written by Emily Monaco

When I was growing up, dinner always had three components (kind of like that new USDA "MyPlate" graph, which I just find confusing. I was raised on the Food Pyramid that actually looked like a pyramid ... but, I digress.) My mother was a staunch supporter of the vegetable, starch, protein layout, with a separate dish for each: some sort of green vegetable, some kind of carb, and some kind of meat that were to be mixed and matched on one's own plate as we saw fit. You see, for many -- including my mother -- protein is synonymous with meat, and a meal can't be had without it.

While I'm all for protein at as many meals as possible -- I get hungry after about an hour if there isn't any -- a good ol' fashioned steak-and-potatoes is far from the only way to get protein on your plate. For a much easier take on getting vegetables, starch and protein into one meal, I take a page out of the books of several international cuisines when preparing my current favorite protein source: lentils, which also have the benefit of being cheap, tasty and oh so good for you.

1. Indian - Masoor Dal

In Indian cuisine, lentils and other pulses are called dals. The dishes made with them vary, with all sorts of tastes and textures available using different spices to flavor the lentils, as well as different kinds of lentils themselves. I love using orange lentils or masoor dal in curry dishes; the contrast in color with the lime wedges and cilantro I use as garnish makes for a very pretty plate indeed! I use masoor dal in place of the recommended chicken or beef with my favorite store-bought curry pastes for a quick and easy dinner; you can control the spice in your own dal by using a simple masoor dal recipe.

2. French -- Lentilles de Puy

Tiny green lentilles de Puy are so well-regarded in French that they're protected by the same government agency that protects the names of cheeses and wines from specific regions! The lentils are so small that they cook almost twice as quickly as other kinds of lentils, making my favorite warm lentil salad an easy lunch treat. Deliate lentilles de Puy are definitely the best kind to use for this recipe, but if you can't find them, ordinary brown lentils will do. Simply cook 120 grams of dried lentils (for two people) in twice their volume of water for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, cook 1 minced shallot with 1 strip of bacon, sliced into matchsticks or lardons in a skillet. When the lentils are cooked, add salt and pepper to taste, and toss with the shallot, bacon and 1 tsp. of balsamic vinegar. Top with a fried or poached egg, for extra protein and a creamy sauce formed by the egg yolk.

3. Italian -- Lenticchie di Castelluccio di Norcia

These small tan lentils from Umbria can be found in the United States at Italian specialty stores; with an earthy flavor, they're the perfect pair for another Italian winter favorite: chestnuts. Cook 120 grams of dried lentils (for two people) in twice their volume of water for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, cook 1 onion, thinly sliced in 2 tsp. of olive oil. Season to taste with salt, and allow the onion to caramelize as the lentils cook, adding water as needed to keep it from burning. Add 200 grams of cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped to the onions. When the lentils are cooked, add them to the onions and chestnuts with a bit of fresh thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For more lentil recipes, try our Easy Lentil Salad with Radicchio and Veggies or Autumn Lentil and Pumpkin Stew with Cilantro Oil.

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Image: Jasleen_Kaur