In soups or salads, Castelluccio lentils are wonderfully versatile little packets of protein

At work we use a little lentil known as Castelluccio from that region of Umbria in Italy – they are similar in size to puy lentils, which are also lovely and protein-rich, but these are paler in colour and slightly nuttier in flavour.

There are some rules to cooking this versatile pulse. First, don't overcook them, as they will become sludgy; they should retain a hint of a bite. Second, wait until they are soft before seasoning them with salt. Third, dress them with olive oil, or any other seasoning, while still warm – as this is when they absorb the chosen dressing right to their very core. They are delicious warm, or at room temperature.

Lentils with red wine

The wine gives the lentils a richer flavour than simple simmering; the method is similar to making a risotto. The lentils make a great accompaniment for meats such as guinea fowl or grilled rabbit, or robust fish such as red mullet or sardine. Don't be surprised if the lentils take a long time to cook, as the acidity in the red wine slows down the cooking process.

Serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil
250g/8oz lentils
100g/31/2 oz pancetta, in one large piece
4 fresh bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
A bottle of Chianti
1 litre/13/4 pints of chicken stock, warmed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and pounded
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the olive oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan on a medium heat. Add the pancetta, thyme, bay and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. The pancetta should not be allowed to crisp. Add the lentils and stir well to coat in the olive oil. Add the wine and allow the lentils to absorb it. Add the chicken stock ladle by ladle, allowing the lentils to absorb the stock before you add any more. Cook for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still have a little bite.

Lentil, carrot and cumin soup

Perfect as a simple mid-week supper.

Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 dried red chilli, crumbled
3 sprigs of thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp cumin, roasted and pounded until fine
200g/7oz lentils
1 litre/13/4 pints of chicken stock or water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the oil in a heavy-based pan on a low heat; add the carrots, celery, onions, chilli, garlic and herbs. Cook gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft, but not browned. Add the lentils, stir thoroughly, then pour over the water or chicken stock. Cook for 30 minutes until there is little liquid left in the pan. Season well, and serve in warm bowls with warm peasant-style bread alongside.

Poached chicken and lentil salad

Serves 4

2 poached chicken breasts, torn into pieces
12 breakfast radishes (the long, white-tipped ones), poached in water until just tender
6 young carrots, poached in water until tender
1 small bunch of tarragon, leaves only, finely chopped
100g/31/2 oz cooked lentils
1 small head of radicchio

For the dressing

1 egg yolk
1 tsp honey
3 tsp verjuice or dry white wine
2 tsp Dijon mustard
80ml olive oil
1/2 tbsp crème fraîche
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the egg yolk, honey, mustard and verjuice/wine into a mixing bowl and whisk together to combine. Continue whisking while you add the olive oil as slowly as possible. Finally stir in the crème fraîche and season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the vegetables, lentils, salad leaves and poached chicken on a plate and spoon over the vinaigrette. Serve at once.