Lentils are the littlest member of the legume family. Even if they’re small, they’re mighty, rocking many health benefits. Just 1 cup contains 18 grams protein, 15 grams fiber, and an array of minerals, particularly iron and folate. They’re also rich in polyphenols, those powerful plant compounds which protect against diseases. Plus, lentils are surprisingly quick to cook, simmering faster than beans, no soaking required. Choose from gorgeous colors, from earthy browns and greens to vibrant reds and yellows. You really can’t go wrong, because they’re all versatile, but different types excel at holding their shape in salads, while others sink down to thicken soups. Tempted to try it? Here’s how to transform lentils into quick, easy, and plant-powered meals, any night of the week.
1. Simmer lentils into thick soups.
The easiest way to make lentils? Pour them straight into the soup pot. The best lentils for the job are red or yellow, because they’re unapologetically mushy, meant to completely fall apart. You could make a simple daal, and serve it alongside any dinner with rice or flatbread. But if you’re craving a big bowl, try a curried coconut soup: Sweat onions and fresh ginger, and stir in curry paste until fragrant. Add coconut milk, diced tomatoes, and lentils, and simmer until tender. Add a big handful of baby spinach or kale at the end to get those greens.
2. Toss lentils into textured salads.
Lentils add rugged texture to salads, tossed with crunchy veggies or chewy grains. Brown or green varieties tend to hold their shape the best. Oh, you fancy? Yes, the most famous come from Le Puy region of France, and they’re gorgeous and green, flecked with jade like tiny pebbles. Simmer them just until tender, although they should still have some bite. Then drain, toss with a mustardy vinaigrette, and fold in finely chopped shallot, capers, and parsley, and bites of frisée. Drop an egg on top and call it dinner.
3. Slide lentils on the side.
Skip the white rice, pasta, and other refined carbs. If you’re searching for easy sides, a spoonful of lentils has so much more to offer, whether it’s the bed for a piece of protein or the basis for a colorful grain bowl. Simmer everyday brown lentils with a few cloves of garlic and a bay leaf, to boost the flavor. Enjoy as is, or combine with brown rice or quinoa. (Just check cook times—rice needs a little longer, but quinoa is quick!) Then top with a piece of crispy salmon and sautéed veg.
4. Treat lentils like ground meat.
Lentils can imitate the texture of ground meat that’s been browned and broken up, which makes it an interesting substitution, whether you want to swap part of the meat in a recipe, or cut it entirely and go totally veggie. Creative cooks are reinventing chili, bolognese, and pot pie. For a comforting “shepherd’s” pie, sauté meaty mushrooms, add a big-flavored beef stock, and simmer the lentils until tender, before topping with mashed sweet potatoes.
5. Mash lentils into meatballs or burgers.
Or instead, shape them up into veggie burgers or meatballs. If you’ve got leftovers from earlier in the week, it’s so easy to dump them into a food processor. Add an egg and breadcrumbs, along with any of favorite herbs or spices, and pulse until the mixture comes together. Shape into fritters and fry until golden, and enjoy them stacked on lettuce leaves or twirled with zucchini noodles, with a dollop of cool yogurt.
Becky Duffett is a writer, editor, and cook living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in EatingWell, Healthyish, Taste, Eater SF, and Edible SF. She was previously the nutrition editor at Fitbit, and she’s currently the senior editor at Good Eggs, supporting farmers, ranchers, and other local producers.