Pros:Distinctive in texture, appearance and taste. Delicious!
The Bottom Line: A culinary indulgence I enjoy regularly, even on a tightwad budget.
I've rhapsodized before about Umbrian lentils here at epinions. Now it's finally time to give them their due with their own review. You probably know all about lentils from past experiences with mushy soups dull of flavor, color, and texture. Umbrian lentils have nothing at all to do with such experiences, however. I don't know anything about the genetics that set Umbrian lentils apart from their cousins in the rest of the world, but I do know all about them from a culinary perspective.
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Umbrian lentils come in a range of muted hues, from a dun brown to a pale yellow, with plenty of washed out green and orange specimens along the way. The lentils are tiny compared with the most common variety of green lentil that we know. I would say they are about half the size of green lentils and on a par with French du Puy lentils. But what really distinguishes Umbrian lentils from any other variety I've tried is that they do not disintegrate into mush when fully cooked.
It might reasonably be expected that the tendency of Umbrian lentils to hold together during cooking would make them tough, or require them to be cooked longer than other varieties. But that's not the case. They easily cook up in the same 30-45 minute time range shared by all lentils. Maybe their small size compensates for a more substantial outer skin that holds them together. Rather than splitting open and spilling their starchy interior into a pot of soup, each Umbrian lentil remains an individual presence, but at the same time readily takes on the flavor of whatever ingredients it is cooked with. So instead of ending up with a porridge-like soup, you will get a brothy soup full of discrete, chewy, and flavorful tiny beans when you cook with Umbrian lentils. They have an earthy, nutty flavor that combines well with all the mainstay ingredients of vegetable soups. They also make excellent candidates for stuffing vegetables such as bell peppers or cabbage leaves.
A small number of growers produce these lentils, unsurprisingly, only in Umbria, and they are best in the mountainous, northeastern parts of this central Italian region. As the supply is quite limited, the price for these lentils is significantly higher than for the more common green lentils. But compared to eating a so-so meal out, these lentils deliver gourmet food at a very modest price. Since these lentils are all imported from Italy, they are most commonly sold by the half kilo (just over a pound). This is enough for three or more batches of soup, each of which could provide 2-4 servings, depending on the quantities of other ingredients.
I've posted my recipe for Umbrian lentils here before. But more recently I've been combining them with sautéed onions, basmati rice, and some vegetable bouillon cubes to make a great filling for other vegetables. I love having these lentils in my pantry. They're very shelf stable, and there are so many things to do with them. If you're interested in trying something a little different in your soup pot, I recommend them very highly.