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The lovable lentil

From the legume lexicon, one leaps out for reducing the risk of heart disease, grocery costs and cooks' time in the kitchen.

The "lowly lentil" actually is a nutritional powerhouse, affordable pantry staple and blank canvas for both ethnic and familiar flavors, says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op.

"They offer an opportunity for food adventure," says Shaw. "They're not typecast ... like pinto beans are to me."

Along with beans, lentils have been among Shaw's "Pantry Basics" for decades. She teaches a class for Co-op owners every other month on the concept of planning an entire week's menu from a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer with the addition of seasonal vegetables. Lentils were the focus of this month's class.

"It's fun to do them in February because it's heart health month," says Shaw of the designation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lentils, she explains, are the richest plant source of folate, an essential nutrient. Just a half-cup of cooked lentils provides about half the daily requirement, she adds. A cup of cooked lentils also delivers almost 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber and only 230 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database.

"Everybody thinks they're supposed to eat dark, leafy greens to get folate," says Shaw.

If everyone ate lentils every day, 26,000 deaths from heart disease could be prevented, says Shaw, citing a study by Washington State University, situated in the middle of lentil and dry-pea country. Known as the Palouse region, eastern Washington and northern Idaho grow a quarter of the United States' lentils. Yet it's unlikely many shoppers recognize lentils as a Pacific Northwest food, if they notice the legumes at all.

"They're just these little, brown, ugly discs," says Shaw. "Lentils just aren't very interesting to look at."

Beyond brown, lentils come in reddish-pink, canary-yellow, speckled-green, black and pure ivory tones. There are several types of brown lentil, from the standard supermarket variety to the Italian region of Umbria's tiny Castelluccios. Depending on the type, lentils either hold their shape or fall apart when cooked.

Whether sold whole or split, with the skin on or off, dry lentils — unlike dry beans — require no soaking before cooking. Shaw suggests cooking a large quantity of lentils and then using portions of them throughout a week's worth of meals: soup, salad, even pureed into a dip.

"I just kept repurposing my pot of lentils," she says. "They're so remarkably versatile in recipes."

Perhaps best known as India's quintessential dal and in other vegetarian dishes, lentils also are common in Middle Eastern fare and traditional in France, whose region of Le Puy lends its name to a lentil particularly beloved of chefs. Tiny, firm, black beluga lentils — like their namesake caviar — are among the most expensive varieties.

Pair beluga and Puy lentils with sauteed greens for a salad that Shaw calls "so exquisite."

"They just go around the world."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.