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Water Cooler: Lentils a nutritious summer staple

UPDATED: Thu., June 17, 2021

Thai red curry with lentils and tofu.  (Jennifer Chase/For the Washington Post)
Thai red curry with lentils and tofu. (Jennifer Chase/For the Washington Post)

Looking for something light, cheap and nutritionally dense to eat all summer long? Look no further than the lentil. This versatile legume can be used in a variety of delicious and satiating cold salads for an easy and nutritious summer staple.

Although lentils are often thought of for hearty soups and curries, it works just as well in summer salads. Brown lentils have an earthy flavor that can blend easily with a variety of other flavor profiles, while green lentils lend a peppery flavor and firm texture to dishes. Yellow and red lentils typically come split for quicker cooking and are excellent for adding a subtle sweetness and nutty flavor to a recipe.

Lentils make a fantastic meat alternative, as they deliver around 17 grams of protein and 37% of your recommended daily intake of iron per each cooked cup. A cooked cup of lentils also provides about 15 grams of fiber, which is great for supporting healthy digestion, and 90% of your recommended daily folate intake which is important for healthy cell cycles and fetal development during pregnancy. The benefits don’t stop there. That cooked cup of lentils also contains a good amount of other vitamins and minerals, especially manganese, which is a trace mineral that can help reduce inflammation and free radical damage and may promote blood sugar regulation, bone health and healthy nervous system function.

Cooking lentils requires very little effort, skill or time. First rinse your lentils through a sieve to remove any debris, then simply toss in a large pot of water to simmer until tender. Check the package instructions for a specific cooking time, but in general most whole lentils cook in about 30 minutes and split lentils cook in about 15 minutes. Check the texture during cooking to ensure the lentils don’t overcook and become mushy. Throw in a bay leaf while cooking for extra flavor. Drain and let the lentils cool, and then you are ready to turn them into a delicious cold salad.

One of the best lentil salads is the Greek fakes salata. It is full of fresh and tangy flavor, accented by refreshing herbs and salty feta. Cook two cups of lentils, drain, chill and combine with a few roasted and sliced bell peppers, a dozen or so halved cherry tomatoes, about a dozen kalamata olives, a diced or sliced red onion and a handful each of chopped parsley and mint. You can also swap the parsley for dill if you prefer. Toss the lentils and vegetables with a simple dressing made of equal parts olive oil and red wine vinegar (or lemon juice instead if you prefer a citrus flavor), a clove of minced garlic and a pinch of paprika. Salt and pepper to taste, then toss with a cup or so of crumbled feta and the herbs before serving.

If you want to incorporate some greens into your lentil salad, pair brown or green lentils with peppery arugula and savory sun-dried tomatoes. Combine a cup or so of cooked lentils with 2 to 3 cups of arugula. Toss with a half cup of sun-dried tomatoes, a handful of crushed walnuts, goat cheese crumbles and optionally, a cup of halved grape tomatoes. This salad tastes wonderful when tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette or Italian dressing. Salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Keep the refrigerator stocked with cooked lentils this summer, and you’ll find it to be a versatile ingredient that can be tossed with just about any combination of vegetables and greens for a healthy, hassle free snack or meal.

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