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updated: 1/31/2011 6:28 PM

Lentils add flavor, nutrients to weeknight meals

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I was convinced, if I wanted to add fiberful and resistant-starch-rich beans or other legumes to my weeknight food plan and didn't want to use canned (they can be salty, mushy and some have added sugar and fat) I had to cook my own. But, bean cooking's hassle-factor brought my consideration to a screeching halt.

Most whole beans will, after an overnight soak, take anywhere from 45-60 minutes (black and baby limas) to cook; some take up to 1½ hours (mung and kidney beans) and a few as long as 2 to 2½ hours (garbanzo beans). For a weekend meal I might eke-out the time, but for a week night? No way.

I knew that a pressure cooker can significantly trim bean preparation time (for example, pinto beans go from 90 to 10 minutes), but many folks don't own one; plus there's added clean up time. And, even using a pressure cooker, beans still have to soak overnight.

Split peas require a fairly short cooking time (35-40 minutes) with no overnight soak needed. But, split peas, whether yellow or green work best in a soup, as well as benefiting mightily from a meaty ham bone; not a frequent visitor to my kitchen.

Attempting to solve my hassle vs. healthy bean dilemma, I looked closer at a bean cooking-time chart and noticed a legume that required zero soak time, and fairly short cooking times: lentils. Lentils come in a variety of colors and types: black, brown, red, orange, ivory and green. And, their cooking times may vary from 25 to 45 minutes.

Nutritionally, lentils are little nutrient dynamos. They're high in fiber (½ cup cooked delivers almost 8 grams; about one-third of your daily requirement). They're also high in protein; nearly 9 grams and supply around 10-percent of your daily potassium and vitamin B-1 requirements, as well as almost half of your folate needs.

Excited about my quick-cooking, low-hassle solution I headed to the supermarket. A search of the dry bean section yielded, to my surprise, organic green French lentils, which I immediately tossed into my cart.

Back at home, I cooked my new green lentils in a light chicken broth-based soup to which I'd added onions, garlic, carrots and spinach. After a 25 minute simmer I couldn't wait to give my lentils a try.

On the plus side, my lentils delivered a good, peppery flavor. On the negative side, they were chewy - very chewy; I hadn't cooked them nearly long enough. Ten more minutes of simmer-time reduced their chewiness and another 10 minutes made them perfect; not mushy, with a meaty toothsomeness. But, 45 minutes cooking time didn't exactly make this fast food.

In my research, I'd noticed that East Indian cooking makes frequent use of red lentils. Digging a little deeper I soon learned that red lentils are the bean world's sprinters; requiring just 20-30 minutes cooking time. This time I located good-looking, red lentils at my local natural food store. And for this experiment, I also bought a rotisserie chicken.

The red lentils cooked just as they should, in 25 minutes flat. I liked their earthy, yet sweet flavor, as well as the textural notes the shredded rotisserie chicken brought to this soup. Adding fresh ginger gave my soup and lentils a little zing.

I did it, I got everything I wanted: short cooking time, little hassle and high fiber all in a healthy and tasty meal-in-a-bowl. Good deal.

Pick up a one-pound bag of red lentils and then, on some cool evening, stop by the supermarket on the way home for a rotisserie chicken so you can prepare this soup. You'll love it.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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