I attended a national Extension conference in northern Idaho last week, and I was surprised to find a bag of dry lentils in my registration materials. As I investigated this unusual welcome gift, I learned that the Palouse region — a six-county rich agricultural area of eastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle — is the leading lentil-producing region in the country.

But, while these farmers produce 90 percent of the lentils grown in the U.S., they export 80 percent of their crop to lentil-loving areas like Spain, Greece, India and the Middle East. Americans don’t seem to have the same appreciation for lentils as other parts of the world — here we eat less than a quarter-pound of lentils per person per year.

Lentils have been part of the human diet since Neolithic times. Archeological evidence shows they were eaten up to 13,000 years ago. They have been found in Egyptian tombs and are referred to in the Bible.

Lentil colors range from yellow to red-orange to green, brown and black. Lentils also vary in size, and are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split.

Like other legumes, lentils have their strengths. They are inexpensive. They keep for years. They don’t need soaking. They cook in about 30 minutes. And they are nutritionally noble: packed with protein, relatively low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free, high in complex carbohydrates and high in fiber.

The protein in lentils, like most vegetable products, is “incomplete,” meaning it lacks one or more essential amino acids. However, this deficiency can easily be overcome by serving them with grains, nuts, or a small amount of lowfat dairy, eggs or lean meat. These complementary foods provide the missing amino acids to complete the protein.

Legumes, including lentils, are second only to wheat bran as the best plant source of dietary fiber. Both types of fiber — soluble and insoluble — are present. Soluble fiber has been shown to help lower blood cholesterol levels and control blood sugar while insoluble fiber increases bulk, alleviates some digestive problems, and may help to prevent colon cancer.

If all of that doesn’t get people to lift their forks, lentil farmers are ready with this additional tidbit: lentils are packed with folic acid, a nutrient linked to the prevention of anemia, birth defects and heart disease.

Although lentils are a mainstay in India and the Middle East, they are most often used in cold-weather soups in the United States. They have a deep earthy taste but tend to absorb the flavor of other ingredients they are cooked with. When cooking lentils, use unsalted water since salt causes the skins to toughen when heated. Add acidic ingredients like tomatoes late in the cooking process since they slow down tenderization as well.

Need some ideas to get started with lentils? I’ve shared two of my favorite lentil soup recipes on our Ellis County Extension website, www.ellis.ksu.edu, under Health and Nutrition. Look for “Love Those Lentils!”

According to a recent article in the New York Times, “if you have lentils, you have dinner.” With their rich nutritional value and long history, maybe it’s time to get reacquainted with lentils. The farmers of northern Idaho will thank you.

Linda K. Beech is Ellis County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.