Father Vertenes Kalayjian scoops a hearty pile of lentil pilaf onto a bit of green pepper and laughs at his own unwieldy manner.

"This is going to sound crazy, but I tell you, it tastes better this way. A fork takes something out of it," says the ample priest of St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church.

Kalayjian bustles about the polished kitchen of the upper Northwest church, looking quite like an Armenian Paul Prudhomme. He and a half-dozen church members are sampling lentil dishes in order to decide which will make the grade for their 39th annual bazaar today through Saturday.

Lentils, you say? Lentils? The unassuming legume, all but forgotten except in the healthiest of health food stores and perhaps Mom's kitchen, is some bean; and held in the highest esteem in Armenian kitchens.

Despite its unfashionable image, the lentil is steeped in history and believed to have been one of the first plants cultivated by man. It is mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The "red potage" that enticed Esau to sell his birthright to Jacob, it has been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt as a food for the after-life. As a favorite of nomadic peoples, it has traveled across the deserts of the East and has even been uncovered in the Bronze Age dwellings of Switzerland's St. Peter's Island.

Armenians have been eating lentils for as long as their country has existed -- more than 2,600 years. Though the country's borders have expanded and shrunk with countless wars and invasions, the climate -- cold and dry -- and light soil have always been perfect for growing lentils. As foreigners came across the land they left their marks in many ways, including the cooking. As it is now, the lines between Armenian dishes and those of other countries of the Middle East and Caucasia are blurred.

Even when it comes to typically Armenian dishes, full of cumin, parsley and onions, as the lentil specialties are, the tastes are difficult to describe. Suffice it to say, you know them when you eat them. There are no standards since recipes are most often handed down from generation to generation. A measuring cup may be essential to other cuisines; an Armenian cooks via intuition.

"It was a tradition in my family to have lentils on Saturday. That was cleaning day for my Mother, so she couldn't be bothered with anything else," said Kalayjian, laughing. "We use lemon in the dishes now -- that's a substitute for the pomegranate," says the priest, remembering the plentiful fruit of his childhood in Syria.

At this year's bazaar, three lentil dishes will be featured; the lentil soup, salad and kufte, or patties. They are often accompanied by jajek, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic salad, or hoveeve, a shepherd salad's made from cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, mint, parsley and olive oil.

These dishes are traditionally prepared during Lent on Wednesdays and Fridays, when meat, eggs and milk are untouchable for the Armenians, who were the first people as a state to embrace Christianity as a state religion, in 301 A.D. One of the oldest of these dishes is yesav abour, or Priest's Soup, so named since it's easy to prepare, especially for one cooking alone.

The soup is made during the pre-Easter season as a thick base. It can then be thinned with chicken broth, or combined with pasta or rice. The lentil salad is so full of fresh mint, lemon juice and saute'ed onions that it's a cool shock to the tongue. The kufte is made of cooked orange lentils, steamed with fine cracked wheat, which is also mixed with saute'ed onions and parsley and then sprinkled liberally with cumin.

"You have to be careful when you cook with the orange lentils to look for pebbles," advises Mary Perkins, a member of the congregation. "Go through them like you're going through pennies to make sure you get them all clean."

By the way, there's more to lentils than even history gives due.

"They are low in cholesterol, low in fat and high in fiber too," recites Mary Perkins. After learning from her daughter, a registered dietitian at the Group Health Association whose name is also Mary Perkins, that lentils are such a nutritious food, the elder Perkins has become a lentil lobbyist, as it were.

According to Mary Perkins (the daughter), a cup of cooked lentils plus a half cup of cooked rice contains 330 calories, 18 grams of protein and only a trace of fat.

"Besides, one cup of lentils and a half cup of rice costs 14 cents and it's a meal. Three ounces of sirloin cost a $1," says a satisfied Perkins.

And so with both its heritage and a concern for nutrition in mind, the congregation that cooks together is getting ready to prepare more than 14 gallons of soup, 2,500 kufte and an unbelievable amount of salad. That of course is among the many other dishes that will be served. The bazaar, at 42nd and Fessenden streets NW, will be open 11 to 2 today and Thursday for a buffet luncheon, 11 to 9 Friday, and noon to 9 Saturday, with carry-out available 11-2 every day. For information, call 363-1923.

Here are some lentil recipes supplied by the bazaar organizers: LENTIL SALAD (4 to 6 servings)

1 cup brown lentils, picked over and rinsed

2 cups water

1 carrot, sliced thin

1 medium onion, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint or fresh dill

1 tomato, chopped

3 scallions, chopped with 2 inches of green tips

Cook lentils in medium-sized saucepan with water on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add carrots and cook 5 more minutes.

While lentils are cooking, saute' onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Mix into cooked lentils and carrots, cover and set aside to cool.

Mix lemon juice, remaining tablespoon olive oil, salt, pepper and mint or dill into lentil mixture.

Transfer lentil mixture to serving platter; garnish with chopped tomatoes and scallions.

LENTIL AND RICE PILAF (4 to 6 servings)

1 cup brown lentils, picked over and rinsed

3 cups water

1 cup rice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 onions, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

Parsley sprigs for garnish

Cook lentils in water on low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain and set aside. Cook rice in 2 cups of water until liquid is almost absorbed, about 20 minutes. Add lentils, salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest 15 minutes.

Saute' chopped onions in olive oil until golden. Gently mix into lentil and rice mixture just before serving.

Garnish with sprigs of parsley.

Note: Coarse cracked wheat (bulgur) may be substituted for rice.

ORANGE LENTIL AND CRACKED WHEAT (BULGUR) KUFTE (6 servings)

1 cup orange lentils, picked over and rinsed

1 cup cracked wheat (make sure you use very fine bulgur)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/3 cup olive oil

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin (optional)

1 cup chopped scallions with 2-inch green tips included

Place lentils into a medium-size saucepan. Cover with 2 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in cracked wheat, cover pan, and set aside for 20 minutes.

Saute' onions in olive oil until golden.

Transfer lentil mixture to a large bowl, add saute'ed onions, 1/2 cup chopped parsley, salt, cayenne and cumin; mix well.

Moisten hands and form mixture into finger or sausage-shaped patties. Roll into remaining parsley and chopped scallions. Arrange on serving platter and serve.

Ideal served with yogurt and cucumber salad, mixed pickles or fresh tomato wedges.

PRIEST'S SOUP (4 servings)

1 cup brown lentils

5 cups water

4 ounces pasta twists (about 1 cup uncooked)

3 chicken bouillon cubes

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 teaspoons fresh mint

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Dozen scallions, cut in half

Pick over and rinse lentils. Add lentils to water and bring to boil. Simmer 10 minutes, covered, then add noodles and bouillon cubes. Cook 15 more minutes.

Heat oil. Add garlic and mint. Simmer for 1/2 minute. Add this mixture to the soup. Add lemon juice. Cook for 5 more minutes. Taste to adjust seasoning and serve with 3 scallions per bowl, cut in half, on top of soup.