Our first night in the Yucatan this past December, my wife ordered lentil soup. Flavored with bacon and garnished with plantain and lime, it was delicious. Odds are that it was made with Pardina lentils grown here on the Palouse. In fact, you may be more likely to eat Palouse lentils in Latin America, India, or Turkey than in Washington.
I may be exaggerating a little, but seriously, when is the last time you ate lentils? Given that Washington is one of the largest producers of lentils in the world, we are curiously unacquainted with this versatile and tasty legume. Lentils should be our regional culinary specialty.
Instead, they are relegated primarily to serving as a rotation crop for wheat, the vast majority of which is also exported.
This rotation role is not a bad thing, of course. Like other legumes, such as peas and garbanzos, lentils are able to “fix” nitrogen with the cooperation of rhizobia bacteria, providing much of the essential nutrient for the following wheat crop, thus alleviating the need for other nitrogen sources, mostly synthetic, which are becoming more and more expensive.
The relative absence of lentils from not only Northwest, but also U.S. cuisine is all the more curious given that it is such an ancient crop and an integral part of many ethnic cuisines.
The earliest evidence of lentils as part of human cuisine is the charred remains of wild lentils, found in a Greek cave, dating back to about 13,000 years ago. The importance of lentils in the Middle East is illustrated by the ancient biblical story of Esau, who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup.
Although they complement other protein sources, such as pork and duck, lentils are delicious on their own, as evidenced by the largely vegetarian Indian cuisine. Dal, for the unaware, is lentils. Diana Roberts, an agronomist and head of Spokane County Extension, can attest to their vesatility. Roberts, a vegetarian, eats a lot of lentils. She gets a little irritated with recipe approaches to lentils that treat them merely as a medium for bulking up meat. As testament to lentils’ versatility, she gives me a container of curried lentils she’d prepared earlier. Sweet and spicy, they also were full of the basic earthy savory flavor of the lentil itself. Delicious.
Lentils do lack the amino acid methionine, which means they are not a complete protein. However, serving them with grains, eggs, or dairy products completes the protein requirement.
In spite of their long agricultural history, growing lentils is not without its challenges. Cultivated lentils are not very competitive, says Roberts. Insects, disease, and weeds can require a substantial application of chemicals. Some major competitors, such as dog fennel (stinkweed), are even developing resistance to herbicide. Organic farming of lentils is a particular challenge, relying on cultivation and rotation with more competitive crops such as alfalfa.
Legume breeders such as USDA geneticist George Vandemark, who recently took over WSU’s lentil breeding program from Fred Muehlbauer, search for disease resistance genes and other favorable traits in the large collection of both wild and domestic lentils maintained by the Western Regional Plant Introduction Station at WSU. Curator Clarice Coyner is in charge of over 2,000 accessions of wild and domesticated lentils gathered from around the world.
Coyner is working with Vandemark on screening the core collection of lentils, made up of 287 accessions. They managed to ascribe a market class to about 150 of them, from which they extracted DNA, assessing how much diversity is available in each market class. Market classes are essentially broad classifications, mainly Turkish red, Eston, and Pardina.
Curiously (and this may be open to debate) the least-flavorful lentil, the large-seeded green, is the most commonly available in our domestic market, which may have something to do with their level of familiarity.
Some specialty grocery stores and large food co-ops carry several varieties of lentils, such as the Pardinas. Pardinas are closest to the gastronomically famous Le Puy green lentil of France. Le Puy lentils have their own appellation d’origine, a strict quality standard awarded by the French government. Pardinas are close, but not the same, says Vandemark. For some reason their DNA fingerprint differs considerably. He hasn’t figured it out yet. Your taste buds, however, will find them much the same.
About 70,000 acres in Washington were dedicated to lentils in 2007, equal to about 43 percent of U.S. production, according to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council. Total crop value in Washington the year before was $11,932,000. However, that equals not even 2 percent of the crop value of wheat.
Lately, Palouse dominance of the market has been threatened by production in the Dakotas and Saskatchewan.
So here’s where you can do your part. Eat more lentils. First of all, just to get this out of the way, they’re very good for you. They’re a great protein and fiber source, with high values of phosphorous, iron, thiamin, and folate.
Most important, though, is they taste great. They pair wonderfully with a number of my other favorite ingredients, particularly garlic and pork. Or as a salad, with chopped onion and a vinaigrette.
Lentils cook in less than half an hour and lend themselves to interpretation. The only things to avoid are acids and salt until they are completely cooked, as either will slow the cooking.
For more detailed recipes, check the USA Dry Pea and Lentil website, or order their excellent cookbook. (Full disclosure, my wife helped produce it.) For a couple of my favorite recipes, including our interpretation of that Mexican lentil soup, click here.