What is it? The lentils that we eat grow as seeds from the peapods of the lentil plant, Lens culinaris. Because of the legume's small, disk-like shape, its name is the origin of the word "lens." Dal (or daal) is a split-pea variety of whole lentils that turns up in many Indian dishes. Highlighted in the cuisines of many cultures, lentils are cultivated throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It is less widely grown in the Western Hemisphere, aside from some spots including western Canada, though it is apparently growing in popularity among North Americans. No wonder, since lentils provide an affordable, versatile, and nutrient-dense food option.

What is it good for? At about the size of a pencil's eraser, a lentil lives up to the old saying about good things coming in small packages. Fill one cup with cooked lentils and you'll be looking at 230 calories, less than one gram of fat, nearly 40% of your daily needs for iron, 60% of your daily fibre, and a whopping 90% of your daily folate. Folate (also known as folic acid) supports normal cell growth and is a must for pregnant women to prevent birth defects. The fibre in lentils lends a hand in both digestion and heart health and provides a steady staple for the diet of those with diabetes. The lentil's nutritional profile also boasts good helpings of magnesium, a mineral that helps to maintain proper muscle function, including in the heart. And with a third of the daily recommended protein, lentils are often an essential part of the vegetarian diet.

What does it taste like? The lentil is a modest legume. Despite its multicoloured variety - red, green, brown, black, yellow, orange - the lentil is unassuming in both its size and its flavour. Quite hearty but only slightly nutty, the taste of lentils will largely depend upon the foods and spices that accompany them. It acts like a sponge for spices, making it a popular curry ingredient. Lentils also pair well with tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, and even fruits, all of which contain lots of vitamin C-rich to help your body absorb more of the lentils' iron. Unlike most legumes, lentils don't need a pre-cook soak. Do lay them out first so you can sift and discard any small pebbles or debris that may have made it into the mix. Rinse and strain lentils and then set them to boil! Salt and acidic ingredients slow lentil cooking time, so it's best to save these for the final flourish of a recipe.

Amy Toffelmire