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Loving your lentils year-round

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Everyone was loving their lentils on New Year’s Day.

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This tiny, perfect pulse is a powerhouse of goodness and flavour – and global traditions have a variety of countries encouraging eating a bowl for prosperity, health and happiness.

Countries like the Czech Republic, where lentils are prominently featured on New Year’s menus not only in homes but in restaurants and bars (when they are open). The same holds true in Italy, where lentils are served with a spicy pork sausage called cotechino, or “zampone,” a deboned pig trotter that is stuffed with sausage meat,  a particularly popular dish from the country’s northern regions.

Lentil-infused dishes are rich, robust and just burst with flavour. It’s a classic comfort food.

Eating lentils is all about New Year’s traditions and superstitions, as well as symbolism. Lentils are  round, and round foods are considered extremely lucky from a financial perspective (think coins and money.)

If lentils bring on luck, we have Canada to thank. Research shows Canada is the largest lentil producer in the world, with Saskatchewan producing 95% of the country’s lentils.

According to Statista.com, “the majority of the world’s lentils are grown in Canada;” with 2017 stats showing the country produced some 3.73 million metric tons of lentils for all to enjoy.

And, given plant-based eating is becoming more and more popular, we can see those numbers going up.

Variety lentils
Variety lentils Photo by mikyso /Getty Images

Lentils come in a variety of types, including green, red, yellow, black and brown, and different recipes call for different lentils. Red lentils, for example, are perfect for soups or curries as they will go mushy quicker, while green and brown can retail their shape after longer cooking.

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There are specialty lentils as well, including the delicate black Beluga lentil.

So you may have missed all that lentil love-in for New Year’s Day, but why stop at just one day? Include lentils in your diet regularly to not only enjoy the holiday season year-round but get a jump on healthy eating as well.

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LENTILS FOR HEALTH

From a health perspective, these little gems are low in fat, high in fibre and and protein and are nutrient-rich, with 8.5 grams of fibre and 7 grams of protein in just half a cup of cooked lentils. They’re also an excellent source of folate and iron, and a good source of selenium and zinc.

And they’re so versatile and economical. They’re perfect in a variety of dishes that range from snacks to sides, mains – even dessert!

Not bad for a humble little legume that only started being grown in Canada in 1970.

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HOW TO COOK LENTILS:

You can buy them canned and, with a good rinse, are good to add to any dish, like soups or salads, or incorporated into stews. When you buy them dry, they can be soaked overnight, or cooked. This is a simple yet excellent recipe.

3 cups (750 mL) water or broth

1 cup (250 mL) favourite lentils

1/2 tsp. (2 mL) sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a full boil, then adjust and lower heat  just enough to maintain a slow, steady simmer. Cover tightly and continue cooking until lentils are soft and tender,  about 15 to 20 minutes or so.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups (625 mL).

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Lentils with Cotechino Sausage

My baby sisters, Anna and Josie, are amazing home cooks. I have always found their dishes restaurant-worthy and they are adventurous and fearless in the kitchen. Just recently Anna shared her New Year’s Day lentil recipe with me. She spends more time simmering her lentils with aromatics before adding the cotechino sausage. It should be noted, if you can’t find cotechino at your local butcher shop or market, you can use a good-size ham hock with this recipe – just cook the ham hock as you would the cotechino. Anna’s dish is easy but does use several extra steps for added flavour.

Cotechino:

1 lb. (500g) fresh cotechino sausage

1 clove garlic, skin on

1 large bay leaf

Water

Gently pierce cotechino with a knife in several areas, careful not go too deep into meat. Place cotechino in a medium-size pot and add garlic and bay leaf; cover with water and allow to  simmer for about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Lentils:

2 cups (500 mL) dried green or black lentils, rinsed

1 rib celery, with fronds

1 carrot, sliced in half

1 small onion, sliced in half

1 bay leaf

Enough chicken or vegetable broth (or water) to cover lentils

Salt/pepper, to taste

In a large pot, add rinsed lentils. Add rest of ingredients and cover with liquid. Bring to a boil, then drop heat and allow lentils to simmer for about one hour. Add liquid if necessary. Lentils will be soft and moist when ready. Drain and set aside.

Lentils and Cotechino:

2 Tbsp. (30 mL) olive oil

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1 rib celery, with fronds, finely diced

1 carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 small onion, finely minced

1 tsp. (5 mL or to taste) chili peppers

2-3 Tbsp. (30-45 mL) tomato paste

Prepared cooked lentils

Salt/pepper to taste

1 bay leaf

Water

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot and saute celery, carrots, onion, chili peppers and tomato paste for about 5-8 minutes. Add prepared lentils and blend thoroughly, adding enough water to cover. Add bay leaf. Simmer gently for about 45 minutes, or until water has been absorbed.

Remove casing from cotechino and slice into rounds. Add meat to lentils mixture and blend carefully, simmering for an additional 15 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve.

Serves 4-6.  Tastes even better next day.

For other recipes not only featuring lentils but other pulses as well, check out pulses.org/nap/pulse-recipes.

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