Lentils, one of the oldest cultivated legumes, offer not just ease of preparation, but an array of tastes and textures. They vary from creamy to firm, with flavors that range from delicate and earthy to peppery and bold. Unlike dried beans, lentils need no soaking before cooking. Simply rinse them and remove any debris, then add them to seasoned cooking liquid (5 cups liquid to 1 cup lentils, or 2½ cups liquid to 1 cup red lentils) and simmer until tender, then drain if any liquid remains. For most lentils, 1 cup dry yields 2 to 2½ cups cooked.
Brown lentils—the most common variety—have a mild, earthy flavor and can range in color from khaki to nearly black. Because they hold their shape well during cooking, they’re ideal for pilafs, soups and stews. Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes. To serve with roasted lamb or beef, simmer 5 cups water, 1 cup brown lentils (rinsed and drained), 4 medium garlic cloves (peeled and smashed), 4 bay leaves, 2½ teaspoons ground cumin, ½ teaspoon ground allspice and ½ teaspoon kosher salt, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and discard the bay, then stir in 4 scallions (thinly sliced). Season to taste. Serve with plain whole-milk yogurt.
Lentils Du Puy
Dark green lentils du Puy (aka French green lentils) have an earthy, mineral-rich flavor and firm texture, making them ideal for salads and other dishes where a discrete shape is important. Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes. To serve with grilled or roasted pork, simmer 5 cups water, 1 cup lentils du Puy, 2 medium shallots (halved and thinly sliced), 2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard and ½ teaspoon kosher salt, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the lentils are just tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, then stir in 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme and 4 teaspoons cider vinegar. Season to taste.
Earthy-tasting black lentils pair well with braises and other rich dishes. Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes. For a side to salmon or chicken, simmer 5 cups water, 1 cup black lentils and ½ teaspoon kosher salt, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Whisk together 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and ½ teaspoon each salt and black pepper. Stir in 2 scallions (thinly sliced) and 1 celery stalk (finely chopped). Drain and add the lentils, then stir in 3 table-spoons chopped fresh mint.
Green lentils have a firm texture and robust flavor, making them a good addition to salads with bold ingredients, such as garlic or blue cheese. Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes. To serve as a salad, in a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil over medium. Add 8 ounces cremini mushrooms (thinly sliced) and ½ teaspoon each kosher salt and black pepper. Cook, stirring, until softened. Stir in 1 cup green lentils (rinsed and drained), 2 medium garlic cloves (smashed and peeled), ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon salt and 5 cups water. Simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until just tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in 1/3 cup chopped fresh dill. Toss with bitter greens and orange segments.
Red lentils cook fast and break down easily, making them best for rustic soups or hearty sides. Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes. To serve as a curry, simmer 2½ cups water, 1 cup red lentils, 1 ounce fresh ginger (peeled and thinly sliced) and ½ teaspoon kosher salt, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the lentils have broken down into a coarse puree, 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the ginger, then transfer to a serving bowl. In a small saucepan over medium-high, melt 4 tablespoons salted butter. Add 1½ teaspoons cumin seeds (lightly crushed), 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (lightly crushed), 1 teaspoon curry powder and ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper. Cook, swirling, until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Pour over the lentils.