LOOKING FOR new ideas for delicious, nutritious, quick-cooking and budget-conscious meals?

Make lentils your go-to legume.

One of the first foods ever cultivated, lentils have never really entered the mainstream of American cuisine. But that may be changing.

Flip through the index of "The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook," by Erin Chase (St. Martin's Griffin), and you'll count nine recipes featuring lentils, including lentil meat loaf. Lentils are a smart choice for penny-pinching cooks: Chase estimates that a cup of brown lentils costs just 40 cents.

"Gourmet Today," by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin), offers 11 recipes with lentils, including lentils with curried butternut squash and walnuts, a combination for anyone who craves "memorably seasoned" dishes.

Spicy Lentils With Turkey Sausage is just such a memorable dish, seasoned with the subtle heat of cayenne and jalapeño pepper, and the smoky flavor of low-fat turkey sausage.

Lentils contain more protein than any other vegetable besides soybeans. Lentils are an excellent source of folate, a very good source of fiber and a good source of iron.

Shopping tip: Brown lentils are available in supermarkets and usually marked simply "lentils." Green lentils are a gourmet item found in specialty stores. Red lentils are typically found at Middle Eastern and Indian stores.

Cooking tip: Unlike dried beans, lentils don't require a presoak and cook in 20 to 30 minutes.

Serving tip: This recipe also would be tasty with ham instead of sausage. Stir in 2 cups cubed, lean, fully cooked ham instead of sausage during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

SPICY LENTILS WITH TURKEY SAUSAGE

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

2 leeks, trimmed and chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1 cup brown lentils

3 1/2 to 4 cups reduced-sodium vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

1 pound smoked turkey sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces

Spray a Dutch oven with nonstick spray coating. Heat pan over medium-high heat. Add chopped vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in lentils, 3 1/2 cups stock and seasonings. Cover and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low and cook 45 to 50 minutes or until lentils are just tender. (If mixture becomes too thick, stir in remaining stock.)

Stir in sausage. Cover and cook 10 minutes or until lentils are tender. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Makes six 1 1/4-cup servings.

Per serving: 270 calories (23 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 56 milligrams cholesterol, 26 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams protein, 386 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.

Jill Wendholt Silva is an award-winning food journalist and editor for the Kansas City Star. She is the author of the cookbook "Eating for Life" ($24.95, Kansas City Star Co.), featuring 100 recipes from her weekly column. Contact her at jsilva@kcstar.com.