This past holiday I gave a good friend a package of Umbrian lentils as a part of our gift exchange. When she opened her package, she burst out laughing and soon I discovered why: she had included the exact same package of lentils in her box to me. Lentils for Christmas? you may ask — isn't that a form of punishment, like coal in your stocking? Not with this particular kind of lentil, which is a cut or two above what you find in the bulk bin at your local heath food store. Read on for my reasons why I consider them a gift equal to gold.
Umbrian lentils are from a particular valley in Italy called Castelluccio where they are a part of a three year crop rotation along with wheat and pasture. They have been grown there for centuries and have always been produced organically and sustainably (back when those words simply meant farming) and are cultivated mostly by hand. So, yes, they are a little more expensive than your usual lentil but I find the extra cost completely worth it.
Umbrian lentils are tiny and require just a short 20-30 minutes simmer to soften, which they do into a nice creamy texture while still holding their distinct shape. They have a rich, nutty taste and don't necessarily need a lot extras to make them flavorful, so you can cook them in water with beautiful results, although stock would add an extra richness. Because they are a little more expensive, I find that I like saving them for special occasions and dishes where they will really shine, such as Faith's Colorful Lentil Salad with Walnuts & Herbs or this Lentil Salad from the amazing Patricia Wells.
• Find them: Look for Umbrian lentils in gourmet shops or the imported section of larger grocery stores. Bartolini offers them in a 500 gram (1.1 lb) package that's perfect for gift giving and can be found online from Market Hall for $6.00 per package.
Related: How to Cook Lentils on the Stovetop
(Image: Dana Velden)