I have always loved lentils. I think they are fabulous. One of my favorite soups is a lentil vegetable soup that I had to make in culinary school. It was a pain to make because I had to do a huge batch and all of the veggies (shallots, fennel and carrots) had to be hand cut into brunoise, which means 1/8 inch squares. Which means I absolutely hated prepping for it. But once I tasted the finished product, I was smitten. It was a great recipe that was magical because its simplicity allowed for the lentils to shine.
Last week was a perfect time to turn to my old friend the lentil de puy, or French lentil. I was feeling the need for a diet detox after spending five days in Seattle on business eating copious amounts of Iberico pork, foie gras and bacon. I was starting to get what my co-workers and I affectionately call the “meat sweats” — too much protein, not enough roughage. For reference, if you want to see someone get serious meat sweats, watch Tony Bourdain eat at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. Skip to exactly five minutes in and you will see him die a little inside every time a new foie gras dish comes out of the kitchen. It’s tragic yet hilarious. And I can totally sympathize. We need vegetables with our meat, it’s a fact.
Anyway…since I didn’t feel up to making a soup, I unearthed a recipe for a lentil salad that I had been wanting to try out. It’s from America’s Test Kitchen’s Light & Healthy cookbook (one of my favorites) so I knew it would be good and hopefully it would satisfy my desire for some fiber.
I started with the basics — cooking the lentils. Lentil recipes always seem to start the same way — give your lentils a good rinse and pick through them. Now I always do this and while I understand the rinsing part, I am never too sure what I am supposed to be searching for when I “pick through them.” I always dig around but have yet to find anything exciting, like diamonds or gold pieces. In all seriousness, I’m guessing I’m looking for small rocks or “bad” lentils, but to be honest I’m not too sure. So I just sift through them for a few minutes until I feel I’ve fulfilled that step, then I move along.
Have any of you ever found anything mysterious hiding in your lentils? I’d be very curious to find out.
Anyways…now put your nice, clean lentils in a pot with water (1:4 ratio of lentils to water) with salt, half an onion cut in half, a couple of bay leaves and some fresh thyme. Then simmer gently until they are cooked and tender, about 25 minutes. The wonderful thing about lentils de puy is that they hold their shape nicely, so be careful not to overcook them or to boil them too hard. You want them to keep their integrity, not turn to mush.
Once they are tender, reserve about half of a cup of the cooking liquid and strain the rest out. Pick out the bay leaves, thyme and onion pieces. Let the lentils hang out for a bit while you get the rest of your goodies rolling.
The recipe is simple, calling for minced scallions, toasted walnuts and a small jar of roasted peppers. But since I had some extra raw fennel from my pork tenderloin dinner the night before, I decided to put it to good use, dicing it finely to add to the mix. I also had some leftover cooked fennel, onions and sauce from the same pork dish so I threw that in there too for extra flavor. I would highly recommend fennel with lentils one way or another — they get along like two peas in a pod.
I didn’t have a jar of roasted peppers though. If only I was at DB’s house. He seems to buy them in bulk. So I resorted to roasting my own, which works just fine. And although I love red peppers, if you were to cut these out and just do fennel, I think it would still be pretty groovy. In the end, the peppers were definitely the ingredient hanging out in the sidelines but they do add a pleasing color contrast. And considering cooked lentils are not the prettiest food item to look at, visual appeal is a good thing.
Anyways, next up was whipping up the vinaigrette. Now this is where ATK has a great little secret – using the cooking liquid from the lentils to both add flavor and reduce the amount of dressing (therefore oil) needed in the salad. Since I had already added my fennel/onion mixture the salad was already a little saucy but I agree. Adding the cooking liquid certainly upped the lentil flavor and kept the salad creamy.
But it still needed zing, which is where these guys come in. Talk about old friends! Dijon and sherry vinegar make a lovely dressing together.
Put equal parts mustard and the vinegar into a small bowl and briskly whisk in half the amount of oil. I started with about a tablespoon of the first two and a half tablespoon EVOO and it worked pretty well. Then season with salt and pepper, and you’re done.
Somewhere in here I had also toasted up a half of a cup walnut halves and gave them a quick rough chop. There also might have been a touch of parsley minced up as well as some steamed asparagus to help round things out.
And for that minimal effort you get a beautiful meal full of fiber and veggies. It was filling, but light and fresh and, frankly, exactly what I craved eating. And although it was truly delicious as a cold salad, I think it was even better the next day when I had it heated up for lunch. In fact, as a side dish, it would be great served warm with a seared chicken breast or a sausage. But in terms of satisfying vegetarian meal, I would highly recommend it. So the next time you overdose on meat or cheese and are worried about contracting the meat sweats you should give this a whirl. I promise it will make you feel so much better.