Lentils are small legumes, from the plant family that includes beans and peas. The ordinary greenish-brown variety is available in every supermarket, usually in the dried-bean section. At sixty-nine cents for a one-pound bag, they are a nutritional bargain. They are a good plant source of protein, fiber, and several vitamins and minerals.

You may also find orange lentils, which are just ordinary lentils that have had the skins removed. Less common (and more expensive) are the tiny dark green or black French lentils.

Unlike most dried beans, lentils cook quickly. They have a bland flavor so you can season them just about any way you wish. The easiest way to use them is in soup. Try any one of my favorite lentil soup recipes, then improvise your own variations:

Golden Lentil Soup
Italian Lentil Soup
Lemony Lentil Soup
Lentil-Carrot Soup
Orange Lentil-Root Veggie Soup
Golden Autumn Soup
Canary Island Soup Pot

Lentils with or without skins can be used in any soup recipe. The skinless (orange) ones cook more quickly and give the soup a pretty yellow color.

The tiny green French lentils are quite different and deserve their own recipes; try
French Lentil Soup

Lentils also make a good addition to salads, but for this you will want to use the types with skins on (green, brown or French lentils.) The skinless ones turn mushy as soon as they are tender, which is great for soup but not so great in a salad. To cook lentils for a salad, cover them with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until they are just tender (check them frequently). When they are done to your liking, drain them in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Stir them into any mixed salad or try one of these recipes:

Lentil Tabbouleh Salad
Kamut-Lentil Salad

If you have a Trader Joe’s store near you, look for pre-cooked lentils in plastic bags. So far this is the only source I have found. I developed the Lentil Taboulleh Salad using these. Canned lentils are rare, but if you find a source, they are good in salads too.

More of my favorite lentil recipes:
Cajun Lentils & Zucchini
Marge’s Lentil Sauce for Whole Grains
Chafing Dish Chili
Bright Yellow Dal

For a complete history, description of varieties and nutritional benefits, see the lentil article in Wikipedia