Lentils are good for you

Here is everything you need to know about staying healthy with lentils.

The lentil plant (Lens culinaris), part of the plant family of peas, is native to South Western Asia and is one of the oldest cultivated legumes. Lentils are used in countless cuisines worldwide and are a staple in many Asian countries.

Ancient culinary history

Archaeological records show evidence of their cultivation as early as 6 000 BC, along with other grains including wheat and barley. Historical records show evidence of lentils found in Egyptian tombs dating back more than 2 000 years, in ancient Greece ground lentils were used to bake bread, and in the book of Genesis in the Bible, reference is made to a bowl of lentils which Esau exchanged for his birthright.

Types of lentils

Although there are basically two types of lentils, the larger macrosperma and the smaller Persian microsperma, there are many varieties within these two groups, including the well known brown, red, green and black lentils.

1. Brown lentils are the most commonly found and are ideal for stews, as they hold their shape well after cooking. 

2. Red lentils take less time to cook and easily cook into a soft pulp, which makes them ideal for soups and stews.

3. Green lentils have the most intense flavour and are ideal for salads since they remain quite firm after cooking.

4. Black lentils, not as well known as the other varieties, are characteristically black and shiny when cooked, almost resembling beluga caviar, and are therefore known as beluga lentils.

Health benefits

Lentil plants are cultivated for their seeds, which are dried to be cooked or ground into flour. From a nutritional and health perspective, lentils are extremely nutritious as an unprocessed whole food. Lentils are naturally rich in protein, dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Apart from the fact that they are extremely nutritious, they are also extremely versatile from a culinary perspective – just see our variety of recipes. opposite!

Did you know?

Lentils are classified as a low-GI food, which means that it is digested and absorbed into the body gradually. With this gradual absorption, the effects of including lentils on your blood glucose levels is quite remarkable in that it helps prevent rapid increases and rapid decreases in blood sugar levels.

Why is this important?

Diabetics are advised to stick to low-GI foods, to help support the control of their blood glucose levels.

Weight-conscious individuals benefit from including low-GI foods, as they support appetite control. Including lentils or beans in only one meal per day can help to reduce the craving for sweet and starchy foods, due to the moderating effect of low-GI foods on blood glucose levels.

How to prepare lentils

Most dried pulses have to be soaked overnight in water before they are boiled. The same can be done with lentils, as this would reduce cooking time to 10 to 15 minutes. However, pre-soaking is not essential. Lentils can be boiled by adding three parts cold water to one part lentils. Bring to a boil and reduce heat – allow to simmer until the desired texture is achieved.

Cooking time differs slightly for the different types of lentils:

                Brown lentils:    35–45 minutes

                Green lentils:     15–20 minutes

                Red lentils:          5–10 minutes

Should salt be added?

Ideally, salt should not be added during the cooking process, as this may prolong the cooking time, as well as affect the texture of the lentils. Adding salt results in the lentil skins becoming tough and sometimes the lentils stay quite firm.

Flavoured lentils

Add two celery stalks, half an onion and one carrot when boiling lentils. This adds a lovely flavour, without affecting the texture of the lentils.

Sprouted lentils

Soak half a cup of lentils in two cups of water overnight. The next day, pack a thick layer of damp paper towels on a plate. Drain lentils and spread out on wet paper towels. Cover the lentils with another layer of damp paper towels and leave at room temperature. Sprinkle water on paper towels every six to 12 hours to ensure that they stay wet. When lentils have sprouted within two to three days, remove from paper towels and store in a closed container in the fridge. Use within seven to 10 days.

Tinned lentils

Even though one of the general rules for good nutrition is to stay away from processed and tinned foods, the exception can be made for pulses, including lentils. Since the cooking process takes extremely long, the vitamins that are sensitive to heat and processing will be reduced to the same extent than through the processing to be tinned. The main nutrients found in lentils are by nature resistant to heat anyway, which means that the cooking process does not greatly compromise the nutritional quality. However, the best recommendation is to cook your own lentils.

Time-saving tip

If you don’t always have time to boil your lentils, especially if you need them chilled to use in a salad, you can boil the whole pack and freeze portions for later use. Make sure you use them within three months of freezing.

Lentil recipes

Lentils are ideal to form the base of a variety of stews and soups, but can also be added to any salad or stir-fry vegetable recipe to add flavour, texture and protein.

Sprouted lentil and avocado salad

1 bag lettuce (regular iceberg works best) or ½ washed, torn lettuce

1 whole avocado, peeled, cubed and sprinkled with lemon juice

½ cup lentil sprouts

1 tablespoon chives, chopped

1. Combine the ingredients in a shallow dish.

2. Serve with vinaigrette-type salad dressing.

Crunchy lentil salad

1 cup cooked, chilled brown lentils

1 cup cooked, chilled brown rice

½ red onion, chopped

½ cup raw broccoli, grated

½ cucumber, diced

2 green peppers, diced

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 small peeled green apple, diced

6-8 peppadews, diced

1. Combine all the ingredients.

2. Refrigerate.

3. Serve with honey and mustard salad dressing

Lentil and caramelised onion dip

1 cup cooked, chilled brown lentils

½ cup caramelised onions

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Vital Molasses

OR 1 tablespoon balsamic glaze (instead of vinegar and molasses)

1. Combine all the ingredients in a blender and use as dip with celery sticks, cucumber slices, Vital Rice Cakes/Vital Corn Cakes and other low-fat crackers. (This mixture can be safely kept in the fridge for 7 to 10 days.)

Curried lentil butternut

1 large butternut (very ripe)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

250 g mushrooms, finely sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon curry powder

      or      ½ teaspoon turmeric

               ¼ teaspoon ground cumin

               ½ teaspoon ground coriander

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup cooked green or brown lentils

100 ml plain low-fat yoghurt (optional)

Fresh coriander leaves

1. Slice butternut in half (lengthwise), remove pips and brush with 1 teaspoon olive oil.

2. Bake in preheated oven at 180 °C for about 40 minutes until still firm, but almost cooked.

3. Remove from oven and remove most of flesh without damaging skin.

4. In a shallow non-stick pan, fry onion in remaining olive oil.

5. Add mushrooms and chopped butternut when onions are golden brown.

6. Add garlic, spices, salt and pepper.

7. Add 100 ml water, turn down heat and let simmer until butternut pieces are soft.

8. Add cooked lentils and let simmer for another 10 minutes.

9. Spoon mixture back into butternut skins.

10. Heat filled butternut in oven.

11. Serve with a dollop of plain low-fat yoghurt and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Spicy Tomato & Lentils Soup

½ pack of red lentils

Water

Salt (to taste)

1 tin Mexican tomatoes

1. Place half a pack of red lentils in a pot. Add double the quantity water.

2. Bring to a boil, and boil for approximately 20 minutes until the lentils are soft. 

3. You will note that you will have to add some more water throughout – don’t let it boil dry.

4. Add the tin of Mexican tomatoes and cook for another 10 minutes.

5. If you want it to thicken the soup, just add another half a tin of tomato, or if you want a thinner soup, add more water.

6. Cook lentils until very soft, add salt and serve. 

Hint: You can add some garlic and a bay leaf to enhance the flavour.

Lentil moussaka

100 g dried red lentils

1 tin tomatoes (? 400 g)

1 clove garlic, crushed

½ teaspoon dried oregano

1 vegetable stock cube

150 ml boiling water

200 g aubergine, sliced

1 small chopped onion

Topping: 1 egg

150 g low-fat smooth cottage cheese

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine lentils in a large bowl with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and a pinch of nutmeg. Crumble in the stock cube and add boiling water.

2. Stir well, cover the bowl and cook on high for 10 minutes in microwave oven with 10 minutes standing time, or 30 minutes at 180 °C in a preheated oven.

3. Place aubergine slices and chopped onion in a bowl, cover with cling film and pierce, and cook on high for 5 minutes in the microwave oven or for 15 minutes in a preheated oven at 180 °C.

4. Strain any excess water.

5. Arrange half of the aubergine slices and onions on the base of a serving dish.

6.  Spoon over half of the lentil mixture and repeat the layers.

7.  Cover dish and cook on high for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain any excess water.

8.  Blend egg and cheese until smooth and season with nutmeg and pepper.

9.  Pour over lentil mixture and cook for an additional 5 to 15 minutes, until the cheese mixture is set.

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