These legumes cook to a creamy texture that enriches many dishes. --by Naomi Duguid, award-winning cookbook author

I love having a stash of red lentils (actually they are a gorgeous orange-pink color) in a glass jar in my pantry—they are just so beautiful. They are also a flexible go-to ingredient: They cook quickly in boiling water (about 20 minutes), provide protein and substance (especially valuable if cooking for vegetarians or vegans), and lend themselves to many dishes. And because they are dried, they keep almost indefinitely when stored in a dry, airtight container.

In India, red lentils are known as masoor dal and often boiled until soft (usually in a proportion of 3 cups water to 1 cup lentils), then flavored with fried minced onions and spices. This is traditionally eaten with rice and chapati (Indian flatbread), but you can also serve it as a soup course in a Western meal. I like to knead cooked mashed red lentils into a standard yeast dough to give more protein heft to the bread. It's delicious.

But one of the most interesting ways to prepare red lentils is to make meatless "burgers," spiced with onion and a little tomato paste, as well as a generous squeeze of lemon juice. You can make them ahead and serve them at room temperature as an appetizer or as a vegetarian main course, or instead you can shape them ahead, then pan-fry and serve them hot.

Red Lentil BurgersHands-on: 40 min. Total: 60 min.

The classic version of these meatless burgers comes from Turkey, where cooked lentils are combined with fine bulgur to make the "meat" for the patties. I tend to have rice on hand more often, so I use that instead. Lightly wet your hands before shaping the patties; the water helps prevent the mixture from sticking to your skin. Serve cooked burgers on leaf lettuce if you wish, sprinkled with fresh herbs, and put out lemon wedges, a bowl of chopped cucumber, and a chile sauce or a creamy yogurt-based sauce as accompaniments. Cooked patties freeze well; reheat in the oven at 350° for 10 minutes or until heated.

1 cup dried small red lentils1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice3 tablespoons olive oil, divided3 tablespoons chopped green onions1 tablespoon tomato paste½ teaspoon ground red pepper¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice1¼ teaspoons kosher salt¾ cup diced English cucumber6 lemon wedges

1. Rinse and drain lentils; place lentils and rice in a large saucepan. Cover with water to 3 inches above lentil mixture; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender. Drain.

2. Place lentil mixture in a food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Set aside (keep mixture in processor).

3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add green onions to pan; cook 2 minutes or until softened. Stir in tomato paste and red pepper; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add green onion mixture, 2 tablespoons cilantro, lemon juice, and salt to food processor; process until combined.

4. Divide mixture into 12 equal portions, gently shaping each into a ½-inch-thick patty. Return skillet to medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add 6 patties to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove cooked patties from pan. Repeat procedure with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and 6 patties. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons cilantro. Serve patties with cucumber and lemon wedges.

SERVES 6 (serving size: 2 patties, 2 tablespoons cucumber, and 1 lemon wedge)CALORIES 249; FAT 7.6g (sat 1g, mono 5g, poly 0.8g); PROTEIN 10g; CARB 35g; FIBER 5g; CHOL 0mg; IRON 3mg; SODIUM 414mg; CALC 24mg