Posted Online: March 05, 2013, 12:35 pm

Rich possibilities of lowly lentil

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By Russ Parsons

LOS ANGELES — As culinary fashion continues to wind inexorably lower on the luxury scale — from tournedos to beef cheeks, from foie gras to pork belly — it probably was inevitable that we would eventually come to lentils.

Representing the lowest and plainest possible food denominator since biblical times, when Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup made from them, lentils always have been regarded as a food you would only eat when you absolutely had to.

Yet look at a restaurant menu today or visit an upscale grocery and you'll find lentils that come in a rainbow of colors and bear an atlas of place names.

You'll find lentils that are reddish pink, canary yellow and pure ivory. Many chefs swear by the dark green lentils from Le Puy in France, but at Mozza, chef Nancy Silverton won't use anything but the tiny tan Castelluccios from Italy's Umbrian hills. You'll even find lentils called beluga, after the ultimate in luxury foods, caviar.

I've cooked with lentils for years, but in a dabbling way. When I could find Castelluccios, I used them, and when Trader Joe's stocked lentils from Le Puy at a great price, I'd buy them. But usually, I just cooked whatever the supermarket had on hand.

But with lentils becoming socially acceptable, clearly a more organized analysis was overdue.

So I called Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., my go-to source for obscure ingredients, and asked them to ship me every kind of lentil they carried. That was half a dozen. I also picked up some Spanish Pardinas from Surfas in Culver City, Calif., and just for good measure, some regular brown lentils from my local supermarket.

Then I spent a day cooking, preparing all of them the same way: I added a half-cup of lentils to 2 cups of water, brought it to a boil and then simmered it uncovered until tender.

The first thing I learned is despite all the different colors, origins and names, there really are two main kinds of lentils: those that are firm when cooked and those that are soft.

Generally speaking, the brightly colored lentils — canary yellow, bright red, ivory — are so soft they almost can be pureed with a spoon. These are best used as Indian dal. A side note: All lentils are dal, but all dal are not lentils (lens culinaris). Chana dal is from a split chickpea (cicer arietinum) and ivory lentils, urad dal, are from black gram (vigna mungo).

Setting those softies aside — I am interested in lentils that hold together to use in salads, soups and stews. Among the firm lentils, I found differences mostly in cosmetics: size and color. They all cooked in roughly 20 minutes, and 1/2 cup raw yielded about 1 cup cooked.

The biggest surprise was just how good the plain brown supermarket lentils turned out to be. They were about the same firmness as the far more expensive Du Puys and Pardinas with a flavor that, although not quite as rich as the exotic lentils, certainly was more than acceptable.

Even the most expensive lentils don't cost that much in the grand scheme of things, so I figure $3.50 a pound for the Umbrian lentils is a small enough price to pay for the difference in quality, and that's probably what I'll use for dinner parties.

But it's good to know you can get a really delicious lentil for less than half that price right in your neighborhood. Either way, lentils are the ultimate in affordable luxury.

Colors, textures, flavors

Here are some of the lentils we tested:

Beluga: Very dark green, almost black; tiny and very firm; delicate flavor, with a slight brininess. $6.49 per pound.

Lentils du Puys: Dark olive drab; small and fairly firm; rich meaty flavor with a slight pepperiness. $3.99 per pound.

Pardinas: Dark brown to khaki; small and fairly firm; rich meaty flavor. $4.59 per pound.

Umbrian brown lentils: Golden brown; tiny, very firm; very rich flavor. $3.99 per pound.

Supermarket brown: Dark khaki brown, medium and fairly firm, good meaty flavor. $1.50 per pound.

Lentils with kale and butternut squash
Total time: 50 minutes
Servings: 6
1 1/2 pounds butternut squash
Olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup lentils
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, diced small
1 rib celery, diced small
1/2 onion, diced small
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/2 pound chopped kale, about 6 cups
1 clove garlic, minced

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Peel and seed the squash and cut it into roughly three-fourths-inch dice. Line a jellyroll pan with aluminum foil and mound the squash in the center. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, sprinkle with cumin, salt and pepper, and mix well. Roast until the squash is tender enough to be pierced with a sharp knife, about 15 minutes.
Place the lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with water by 2 inches. Season generously with salt and bring just to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but firm, about 20 minutes. Drain, rinse well. Stir in the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
While the lentils are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the carrot, celery, onion and dried red pepper flakes, and cook until the onions and celery are translucent, about 5 minutes. Rinse the kale under water and add it, still dripping, to the skillet in heaping handfuls. Add the minced garlic and salt to taste, and stir to mix well.
Cover the pan, leaving the lid ajar, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale is very soft, dark and frazzled looking, about 30 minutes. It should be very sweet.
Stir the lentils into the cooked kale, taste and adjust seasoning for salt, pepper and vinegar. Gently stir in about 2 cups of the roasted squash before serving.

Each serving: 224 calories; 11 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 34 mg sodium.