The Palouse ― a piece of the West cut out of Washington and Idaho ― is America's lentil land. The name derives from the French word pelouse, meaning green lawn, and in spring, the verdant lentil fields validate the label. By late summer the undulating hills are honey-colored, and the ankle-high bushes dry and ready to release their treasure ― about 215 million pounds of lentils, more than 70 percent of the country's crop.
Hundreds of combines scoop up millions of thumb-size pods (each holding only two or three lentils), suck them into their inner machinery, shoot the lentils up into a hold, and spew out the chaff.
This harvest is a cook's gold mine: Lentils are inexpensive, versatile, quick-cooking, low in fat, and high in vitamins, protein, and fiber. And now there's a trove of varieties to try ― from black to olive green to bright red orange.
We've divided the most widely available lentil varieties into three basic groups based on their shape, size, color, and cooking properties. Many supermarkets carry several options; look in gourmet food stores for specialty varieties. Or order from Meacham Mills (208/743-0505; 55 cents to 92 cents per lb.), Timeless Specialty Foods (406/278-5770; organic lentils cost $1.25 to $1.75 per lb.), or Zürsun (800/424-8881; $1.50 to $3 per lb.); shipping costs extra.
Basic cooking directions: Sort lentils and remove any debris. Put them in a fine strainer and rinse with cold water. Simmer lentils, covered, in broth or water (3 times their volume if you want to preserve their shape, 4 times if cooking to a purée), stirring occasionally. See cooking times specified for individual types.
LENS-SHAPED: The most common lentils. If cooked the minimum time required, they get pleasantly mealy inside and soft at the edges; with longer cooking they dissolve into a meaty, putty-colored pur―e. Cook until tender to bite but not mushy, 25 to 30 minutes, or until they fall apart, about 1 hour.
• Common brown. May be Brewer or Richlea variety. Medium size; reddish brown to khaki brown; earthy.
• Grande. Also called large, green. An oversize version of common brown lentils; mottled tan and green; earthy.
SMALL, ROUND: Hold their shape well during cooking and develop a slightly chewy texture; colors lighten. Cook until tender to bite, 25 to 35 minutes.
• Beluga. Tiny; black (resembles caviar); mild.
• Eston. Small; khaki green; earthy and nutty.
• Le Puy. Also called petite French green. Small; mottled green and black; rich and nutty.
• Pardina. Also called Spanish brown. Small; reddish brown; nutty.
DECORTICATED: Because they're hulled, these lentils cook very quickly; colors lighten when the lentils are cooked to a purée. Cook until barely tender to bite, 2 to 7 minutes, or until they fall apart, 10 to 17 minutes.
• Canary. Also called Sutter's Gold. Medium size; yellow; split pea flavor.
• Crimson. Also called petite crimson. Small; orange; mild, celery-like flavor.
• Red Chief. Medium size; orange; rich, herbaceous.