Lentils for life

Pulses might be known as the 'poor man's food' but they're hard to beat on the nutritional front.

By Connie Phillipson
Athens News

THE ANCIENT Greeks ate more kinds of legumes (pulses) than their descendants. And it seems they knew exactly what they were doing. In some of the earliest texts we possess, including the well-known Hippocratic Code, there was no shortage of nutritional advice. One especially good tip as far as legumes were concerned came in the ancient text Regimen in Acute Diseases: "And do not eat these, except together with cereals." In other words, make sure you have them with bread.

As little as 30 years ago a nutritionist would have smiled condescendingly at this edict. Now, though, we know better. Legumes have a low glycemic index, meaning that they release their content of starch very slowly; in turn, the conversion of starch to sugar in the blood is gradual. This process reduces the sudden ups-and-downs that nutritionists will tell you is a principal cause of insulin resistance, some degenerative diseases, obesity (not due to overeating), and all the ills of Christendom.

Analysis shows that while legumes and cereals are very similar foods in terms of their principal ingredients, there is a significant difference in terms of their balance. Legumes contain more proteins than cereals, while cereals have more carbohydrates than legumes. But why should we - as the Ancient Greeks advised - eat them together? The answer lies in the old principle that the whole may be worth more than the sum of its parts. Now we know that neither legumes nor cereals contain complete proteins. If you eat the one without the other, your body cannot make up all the proteins it needs. But taken together, they provide all the amino acids necessary to create the vast array of proteins our body manufactures; neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones, the agents of our immune system, and so on. Proteins are in fact the building blocks of life, the ultimate organic materials of the universe.

One legume widely used in both ancient and modern Greece is the lentil (Lens esculenta, faki in Greek). It's one of the earliest legumes found in archaeological excavations, dating back to the Paleolithic Age (more than 12,000 years ago) and present in nearly all Early Neolithic sites (ca 9,000 years ago). It was geographically dispersed too.

In 1885, Alphonse de Candolle referred to finding remains of lentils in prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings. Importantly, it's the legume with the lowest glycemic index, 29, on a scale where glucose and white bread are 100. Being a poor man's food, it was (and still is) eaten extensively, from India where it is known as dahl, to the Near East, Egypt and the rest of North Africa.

Egypt became a major exporter, on at least one occasion finding an ingenious additional use for the legume. The Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican was transported by ship in the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula from its place of origin, packed in some 120,000 measures or, approximately, 240,000 galls of lentils. In this way, Caligula satisfied his fancy, while the people of Rome found themselves in receipt of a huge supply of something substantial and healthy to eat.

The lentil is represented by a small number of different plants; the cultivated species already mentioned, as well as four wild ones. Cultivation increased the size of the seeds, and most of this is believed to have taken place in the Near East. There seem to be good reasons for this belief. It is in this region where these larger lentils make a very early appearance, around the end of the sixth millennium BC - or about 1500 years after wheat and barley were first cultivated. But it is also in the Near East where L orientalis grows wild. It therefore seems logical to suppose that its domestication must have taken place in this region, most probably somewhere between Turkey and Uzbekistan.

Lentil soup improves immensely when some first-class wine vinegar is added just before you start eating. And don't forget the combination of legumes and cereals recommended by those Ancient Greek nutritionists; accompany it with whole-grain bread and some choice olives.

Salmon with lentils and curried mint yogurt
  (Serves 4)

230g lentils
8 baby artichokes, halved
2 lemons, halved
2 tbs olive oil
115g fresh spinach, cleaned and stemmed
16 Kalamata olives, pitted
230g plain yogurt, liquid strained
3 tsp curry powder
1 ˝ tbs fresh mint, chopped
1 tbs honey
170g salmon filets, skin removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable spray, as needed
4 tbs chicken or vegetable stock

To make the sauce, strain yogurt overnight in a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth in order to remove liquid. Whisk in curry, mint and honey. Wash lentils in a fine mesh strainer. Place in pot of 1 litre cool, salted water and bring to a simmer. Cook until tender, drain and reserve on a sheet pan. Clean artichokes by removing the tough outer leaves and stem. Cook in salted water with 2 lemon halves. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, but not falling apart. Shock artichokes in ice water and when cooked, drain and sprinkle with lemon juice and olive oil. Reserve. Rough cut spinach and reserve. Season the salmon with salt and pepper and liberally spray the fish with vegetable spray. Spray clean grill surface with vegetable spray. Cook on both sides until the fish is slightly translucent in the center.
In a hot sauté pan, put 1 tablespoon of olive oil; add the lentils, baby artichokes, olives, and spinach. Season with salt and pepper and moisten with chicken stock a little at a time until mixture is hot. Place lentil mixture in the middle of the plate, place artichokes and olives around and lay the fish on top of the lentils. Drizzle curry mint yogurt sauce over the fish.
Lentils and pasta
  (Serves 4)

250g lentils
1 medium onion, finely chopped
thyme to taste
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 green onion finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
250g elbow or mini shells pasta

Soak lentils overnight. Drain, add to pot with other ingredients and water about 5cm above lentils. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes. At the same time cook the pasta until al dente. Drain cooked pasta. Serve with lentils, crusty bread and tossed salad on the side.