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Like a lot of people I know, I’m a disciple of Rancho Gordo, the Napa, California-based purveyor of heirloom varieties of dried beans. I’m sure my younger self would be horrified that the delivery of a 10-pound box of dried beans is regularly the best thing to happen to me all day, but life is long and the beans really are that good.
The last time I was on their site I noticed “caviar” lentils for sale. I like lentils, sure, but they’ve never been something to get my blood pumping like the rest of the Rancho Gordo line. But I took a flier and tossed a pound into my order. When they arrived, they were unlike any lentils I’ve ever eaten, combining an intensely grassy and earthy flavor with a pleasantly firm texture—each individual grain stays intact and sort of pops on its own when you chew. They were actually a little bit like caviar.
Before these lentils arrived, I had two basic modes of cooking lentils at home: Indian dishes, (usually a simple lentil curry) or ’70s-style vegetarian cooking like out of the Moosewood Cookbook. Both relied on plain, mushy brown lentils over rice, and were good but nothing life-changing.
Now, lentils that don’t get mushy maybe doesn’t sound like a life-changing thing either, but I am suddenly adding them to everything. They bulk up salads; they’re a perfect neutral base for salmon, chicken, or steak; and they’re an ideal start to a grain bowl to use up all the random vegetables from my CSA. They’re as easy as pasta to cook, too: less than 20 minutes simmered, no soaking required. (They have all the filling goodness of my beloved dried heirloom beans in a tenth of the time.) I’ve since found similar black lentils at Indian markets and better grocery stores, but nothing quite compares to the Rancho Gordo product.
They’re good for you and the planet, too. They’re packed with protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates, and they have among the lowest carbon footprint per gram of protein of any food. This is not news, but it was always easy for me to ignore: lentils were virtuous, but they tasted like it. These days lentils feel like a luxurious indulgence. Every day it seems like there’s a new startup claiming that high-protein cricket flour will heal the world, that we’re supposedly on the verge of a golden age of lab-grown meat. When I hear about stuff like that lately, I can’t help but think: when we’ve got lentils this good, why go through the trouble?