Spring into beans and lentils

(Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

It’s spring. The freezer and root cellar are close to empty. But lentils, beans and grains are plentiful. It’s time to renew our acquaintance with these humble, ancient staples.

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the tiny, lens-shaped legumes we call lentils. In ancient times, these beauties were a popular protein source. You may be familiar with the story from Genesis that tells how Esau lost his birthright over a pot of lentil stew. Archeologists have discovered lentils dating to the Paleolithic period 10,000 years ago in northern Syria and southern Greece.

This prehistoric legume is still a common staple in parts of Asia like the Middle East and India. Dhal is a spicy Indian porridge served with rice or naan flatbread. In the Middle East, they’re often served with pita, bulgur or rice in salads and stews.

There are more than 50 varieties, and lentils come in many colors. The most common are brown lentils, but there are also black, red, white, green, yellow and orange varieties.

With a growing appreciation for ethnic fare, this ancient food is experiencing a resurgence. They contain B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and important phytochemicals.

Lentil Waldorf salad (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Hearty and a low-fat source of protein, lentils are the most digestible of all legumes. They have a low glycemic index and are high in fiber and protein, so they help maintain blood sugar levels, making them ideal as a diet food and great for diabetics. They’re also nutrient dense. Just one cup provides almost a day’s worth of folic acid and more than a third of the daily iron requirement. These little gems are also the easiest legumes to prepare. Unlike beans, they don’t require soaking and cook in just 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety. In addition to soup and stew, they’re great added to salads and can be mashed and mixed into baked goods for an extra protein boost.

Like lentils, beans are one of our earliest food crops. Soy and mung beans are common in eastern Asia and have been cultivated in China for thousands of years. Other varieties such as black beans, pinto beans and kidney beans were domesticated 7,000 years ago in Peru and Central America. Bean farming spread throughout the Americas, and beans are one of the “three sisters” dietary staples of Native Americans. Later, Portuguese explorers spread western bean varieties around the world. By the 17th century, Western beans were common crops throughout Europe and Africa.

Today, there are more than 100 different kinds of beans. They come in many colors, sizes and flavors: white, black, pink, red, kidney, lima … All are good, inexpensive sources of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates, with little fat. Beans contain the minerals iron, potassium, selenium, molybdenum, and the vitamins thiamine, B6, and folic acid. The antioxidants in beans help fight chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. The USDA Food Guide Pyramid recommends six half-cup servings of beans per week.

Compared to meat, legumes are an inexpensive source of protein. Many recipes from around the world incorporate beans: Italian beans and pasta, Lebanese hummus, Mexican burritos or chili, and Puerto Rican rice and beans are just a few examples.

Dry beans are inexpensive but require soaking and cooking. Canned beans are more convenient. They are easily stirred into pasta or salad to help you make quick, nutritious meals.

Soaking dry beans helps rehydrate them, reduces cooking time and makes them easier to digest (because some of the substances that cause flatulence dissolve in the soaking water and will be partially removed when the water is discarded). To soak, immerse the beans completely in water. Use a quart of water for every cup of beans, because they will swell to two to three times their dry size.

It’s best to soak them overnight at room temperature. If you forget, bring them to a boil, cook for about two minutes, turn off the heat, and let them soak for one or two hours. A longer soak time will allow more of the gas-causing elements to dissolve in the water; however, soaking them too long will affect texture and flavor.

Make sure to drain and rinse the beans before cooking in fresh water. Cooking time will vary by type of bean, so check package instructions. You can reduce the cooking time by using a pressure cooker. You can cook them in a pot on the stove or a casserole in the oven. Season with herbs and spices, and make sure they have enough liquid. If the beans cook too long, they will fall apart and thicken the cooking liquid. This is great for soup or stew recipes, but not for salads or casseroles.

Here are a couple of bean salad recipes to celebrate spring.

Lentil Waldorf salad


3/4 cup brown lentils

1/4 cup quinoa

2 cups broth or water with 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large or 2 small carrots

1 or 2 cups sliced celery

1 red onion, peeled and sliced

2 apples


1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 Tablespoon maple syrup

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper


Place lentils, quinoa and broth or salted water in saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer. Cook about until liquid is absorbed and lentils and quinoa are tender — this should take about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, chop the carrot. Add to the pot during last 5-10 minutes of cooking (depending on how tender you like it).

Slice celery. Peel and slice the red onion. Core and chop the apples. Set aside.

Mix dressing ingredients (oil, vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper) in a small jar.

When lentils have finished cooking, shake the dressing well and stir in.

Stir in celery, onion and apples.

Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more salt or vinegar or maple syrup, to your taste.

Cool and serve. Serves 4 to 6.


¯ Add 1 cup diced cooked ham.

¯ Add a cup of sliced scallions or chives.

¯ Stir in plain yogurt before serving.

¯ Garnish each serving with crumbled goat cheese.

White bean and tuna salad


1 clove garlic

2 Tablespoons olive oil

Juice of one lemon (about 3 Tablespoons)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 or 1 red onion, thinly sliced (1/2 to one cup)

1 can white beans, drained (sizes vary — 11.5 to 16 ounces or anything in between will work)

One 6 ounces can chunk-light tuna in water, drained

1 cup frozen green peas, thawed (optional)

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley, basil, dill or another green herb of your choice


Crush or mince the garlic. Place in bottom of salad bowl. Add olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and whisk with a fork to combine.

Peel and slice the onion; stir into the dressing.

Drain and rinse beans; stir into the dressing.

Drain the tuna and stir in.

Add fresh minced parsley.

Optional ingredients for garnish: sliced black olives or pimentos.

Serves 3 to 4.

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Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: writing and cooking. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Twitter: @yvonawrites.


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