TORONTO - Chef Michael Smith can't say enough good things about Canadian lentils.
"For me they're the ideal ingredient. They hit all the marks. They're beyond healthy — I'd bore you to tears with the reasons why lentils are healthy," he explained. "They're beautifully delicious, with a wonderfully earthy neutral flavour that marries and pairs with virtually anything else.
"They're Canadian and they're very, very inexpensive to buy, easy to find and easy to cook with. You don't have to precook them. You don't have to soak them the night before. For me, they fall squarely in the category of ingredients that I consider easy."
Smith is a spokesman for Canadian Lentils, the organization that promotes fibre-rich lentils, of which there are four basic types grown in this country, primarily Saskatchewan — green, red, black beluga and French green, or du Puy. They are packed with such nutrients as zinc, beta carotene, selenium and folate.
"We grow more than anyone else in the world. We produce what's generally regarded as the best in the world, but we ship the vast majority of them. If we can just get a few more to stay at home, the numbers add up much better for our Canadian farmers," the television host and cookbook author said in an interview from his home in Fortune, P.E.I.
In keeping with that goal, Canadian Lentils has launched a contest to help home cooks become more familiar with lentils.
The Love Your Lentils Canada competition features two divisions — home cooks and food bloggers.
Home cooks have a choice of adapting five base recipes that Smith has created — a brown rice and lentil side dish, chocolate chip lentil cookies, a lentil and spinach salad, lentil chili and a vegan lentil burger — while bloggers are asked to start from scratch and be innovative.
Smith and his team will review the top 10 recipes in each division as voted on by the Canadian public by May 31 and select the top three in each category. Smith will make and test the finalists' recipes. The winning blogger and home cook will be announced June 13 and join Smith in Saskatchewan starting June 23 for a culinary adventure, including a visit to a lentil farm.
"Simply visiting and meeting somebody who produces food in Canada is very powerful, whether it's lentils or any other ingredient," said Smith, who led the team of chefs who cooked for the world's Olympians in the Whistler Athletes Village in 2010. "It really does help us connect ourselves to our food."
With the base recipes, Smith wants home cooks to "stir a little of their own personality into the recipe." It could be as simple as varying the toppings on the lentil burger. He will be looking for taste and appearance, as well as creativity — especially among the bloggers.
"That's pretty much the big three, whether you're judging the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France, or lentils in Prince Edward Island."
The host of such Food Network Canada shows as "Chef Michael's Kitchen," "Chef at Home," "Chef at Large," "Chef Abroad" and "The Inn Chef" offers a tip to novice recipe developers — keep it simple.
"Understand that lentils are flavour sponges," said Smith, who plans to publish another cookbook this fall. "They're very, very good at absorbing the flavours around them and because they're neutral they can work in many different ethnic foods.
"Many different flavour themes can be applied to them. But keep it simple and just keep in mind that lentils are a very versatile ingredient and go from there."
Contest details are available at loveyourlentils.ca. There is also a link at Smith's website, chefmichaelsmith.com.