The Loma Prietan - May/June 2009

Cooking Green

Living Lightly with Lentils

story and photo by Kay Bushnell

Change is occurring at the dinner table. Even many longtime meat eaters are dining less often on animal products. In the process, foods that used to be on the periphery of their meals are becoming more prominent.

The rich flavor of well-seasoned lentils appeals to former meat eaters, and — unlike most legumes — lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking. At one time I was familiar with lentils only in lentil soup and Indian dishes. As I explored new lentil recipes I realized that I had been overlooking the possibility of lentil loaves, lentil salads, lentil burritos, lentil-brown rice pilaf, lentils with pasta, lentil burgers, and American-style lentil stews — all of which are now favorites on my family's menus.

Nutrient-packed lentils have been feeding humans for thousands of years. They have been found in Swiss lake dwellings from the Bronze Age and in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2,400 B.C. It is written in the Bible that Esau sold his birthright for a pottage of lentils. The consumption of lentils is still gaining momentum in this country, partly because American farmers only began growing lentils in the early 1900s.

The American Northwest provides perfect growing conditions for lentils. Farmers there rotate land-restoring lentil and dry pea crops with wheat or barley in alternate years. Seventy- five percent of the peas and lentils grown in the U.S. are exported to more than 90 countries. Americans consume the remaining 25%, a proportion that is likely to increase with the trend toward plant-based meals.

In February I attended our chapter's Third Tuesday Social to view images of polar bears taken by Jim Liskovec and to hear about the bears' plight as climate change threatens their survival. While the changes in the Arctic are clearly visible, here in the temperate Bay Area it is easy to feel somewhat removed from climate change. The work of scientists on the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives us a much larger global perspective. Earlier this year an IPCC scientist, Chris Field of Stanford, presented his newest findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He predicted that the IPCC's next assessment will describe "more serious and diverse" impacts of climate change than previously reported. "We really have very little time," said Field.

Our daily food choices really do matter in stemming climate change. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that worldwide livestock production generates 18% of human-caused greenhouse gas — more than all forms of travel combined.

Serving dishes based on lentils and other legumes is an easy way to help reduce greenhouse gases and enjoy delicious, sustainable meals.

Lentil Facts and Tips

• Lentils are surprisingly easy to cook. They do not need to be pre-soaked. Just add two parts water or other liquid to one part lentils, adding more water as needed during cooking.

• Fifty varieties of lentils are grown worldwide, but most local markets carry just the brown, green, and red varieties. In ethnic markets you may find a larger selection.

• Red lentils take a mere 15 minutes to cook; brown and green lentils take only about 45 minutes.

• Dried lentils have an indefinite shelf life. Store them in a cool, dry place. I keep them in big glass jars on my kitchen counter.

• Lentils are almost fat-free and are rich in protein, carbohydrate, fiber, folic acid, and potassium. As a plant food, lentils contain no cholesterol.

Chapter member Kay Bushnell has taught plant-based cooking and appeared as The Garden Gourmet in a community-access television cooking series.