The beauty of lentils is that they are quick to cook. Unlike other dried beans, they do not demand the overnight soak or eight-hour waiting time to tenderize as do red kidney, cannelloni or black beans. After a short simmer, the rewards are immediate.

The beauty of lentils is that they are quick to cook. Unlike other dried beans, they do not demand the overnight soak or eight-hour waiting time to tenderize as do red kidney, cannelloni or black beans. After a short simmer, the rewards are immediate: a soup, side dish or main dish salad, and if the cook prefers, free of meat or animal products.

While most of us think of lentils as brown, a variety of colors is also available, including red and the expensive green French lentils. The flavors seem to vary only slightly, so it’s easy to substitute one color for another. For me, the humble brown lentil, the most economic one, works well.

Cooking is easy — just bring the lentils and water to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until done. Timing for doneness depends on the beans themselves. The rule of thumb is about 20 minutes, but some require shorter or longer cooking times. I’ve cooked lentils that turned to mush within only 10 minutes of being dropped into the pot; I’ve also waited, quite impatiently, for up to half and hour while older lentils took their time cooking.

So I usually start checking after 12 minutes of cooking. I taking a few out of the pot with a slotted spoon, run them under cool water to prevent burning, and bite into them. After that, I check about every three minutes until they are “al dente,” that is, tender with a little bit of chew left. I take into consideration that the beans will continue to cook from residual heat while draining and cooling. If I’m going to serve them in a cool salad, I drain them, then run the cold-water spray over them, gently tossing with a spatula, while they are still in the colander.

Here are two recipes that fit in with the time of year. One with familiar European flavors; the other with more exotic seasonings from India.

WARM LENTIL SALAD WITH LEMON & THYME DRESSING
Makes 4 servings

In the interest of time, use roasted red peppers from a jar. The garlic should be chopped until it is nearly the consistency of coarse salt. Hint: If you salt it lightly as you chop, it will be easier.

To use this as a main dish vegetarian salad, serve a double portion surrounded by hard-cooked egg cut in quarters. For vegans, skip the cheese and eggs. For carnivores, pair it with a pork or lamb chop.

1 cup brown lentils
5 cups water
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large roasted red pepper, diced
1/2 cup pitted black olives, slivered
2 stalks celery, trimmed of leaves, thinly sliced
Salt, ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1. Bring the water to a boil with the lentils. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, but check often starting at 12 minutes, so that they do not get mushy. The lentils can be ready between 15 and 20 minutes. Drain. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

2. While the lentils cool, whisk together lemon juice, chopped garlic, thyme leaves, and olive oil. Pour this over the lentils and toss gently.

3. Add the remaining ingredients except the cheese. Toss again gently. Then sprinkle the feta cheese over the top. Serve while still warm.

INDIAN-STYLE LENTILS WITH SPINACH AND GINGER
Makes 6 servings

This Indian-style dish is based on a traditional Indian recipe. I’ve kept the lentils whole and tender rather than cook them down as is customary in a traditional dal. A great vegetarian main course, it can also be paired in smaller portions with meat. I like to use baby spinach leaves in this recipe — no trimming necessary.

When seeding chili peppers, wear gloves, wash hands in hot soapy water when finished, and do not touch your face or eyes, to prevent burning.

1 cup brown lentils
5 cups water
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 hot green chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon very finely grated fresh ginger, peeled before grating
1 bag fresh spinach leaves, washed and trimmed
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Salt, fresh-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Bring the water to a boil with the lentils. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, but check often starting at 12 minutes, so that they do not get mushy. The lentils can be ready between 15 and 20 minutes. Drain, saving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. 

2. Over medium heat, warm the oil in a pot large enough to hold the spinach. When hot, put in the chilies and the ginger. Stir and cook for 10 seconds until they start to soften. Add the spinach. Stir and cook until the spinach wilts.

3. Add the cooked lentils and salt. Stir to mix and bring to a simmer. Cover the cook very gently for 5 minutes, adding the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems too dry. Stir in cilantro, salt, ground pepper, and lemon juice. Serve hot.

Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.