There is something so wonderful and satisfying about serving up a big dish of warm and nutritious food to family and friends, and knowing it hasn’t cost the earth to do it. Lentils fit that bill perfectly. They are dirt cheap, take minutes to cook, are packed with fiber and protein, store in their dried state for years in your pantry, and can be turned into all kinds of tasty and warming meals. In Alaska, warming is kind of critical, and so lentils tend to make frequent appearances on my winter table. As I was raised in the South, I was brought up with the tradition that to have a year of good luck and wealth, the first bite of food eaten in the New Year should be black-eyed-peas, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve started substituting lentils. I get to live in the most beautiful place on earth, surrounded by people who love me, so I’d say the luck, if not so much the wealth, keeps coming despite this variation on tradition.
One thing that I hear all the time from people when I say that lentils are among my favorite meals is that lentils have no taste. This just isn’t true! You just have to know how to pick the best lentils and then cook them the way they like best.
First, pick the right kind of lentils for your dish. Like other legumes, lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber, but they have the added advantage of cooking quickly. Lentils have a mild, often earthy flavor, and they’re best if cooked with assertive flavorings. The best, most delicate lentils are the peppery French green lentils, or puy lentils. These hold their shape well and are thus great in salads or in other applications where you drain the lentils from their cooking liquid, but often take longer to cook than other lentils. The milder brown lentils more commonly available in most American grocery stores are also quite good and can be used as a cheaper and easier-to-find substitute. Brown lentils also hold their shape after cooking, but can easily turn mushy if overcooked, so test them frequently for doneness. Indian markets also carry a wide variety of split lentils, called dal, which come in a variety of colors and sizes.
Now that you’ve chosen your lentils, be sure you treat them right. Fortunately, lentils are very forgiving so they’re great for novice cooks or for people who need to get a meal on the table fast. Unlike dried beans and peas, there’s no need to soak them. Just remember that bigger or older lentils take longer to cook. Oh, and remember to rinse them under cold water before you cook them, removing any small stones that might have made it in to the package from the field.
The first great trick to cooking lentils is to not salt them early in the cooking process. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “But salt brings out the flavor of, well, everything. Why wouldn’t I want to use it here in something so famous for not tasting like much?” I didn’t say don’t salt your lentils, just wait until they are nearly cooked through, probably 30 minutes into the cooking process. Salt causes lentils to stay unpleasantly hard if added to the cooking liquid early on. So, when cooking lentils I break my standard rule of seasoning each layer of ingredients from the beginning. Trust me, you’ll be glad you waited.
The second great trick to cooking lentils is to add acid. Lentils love a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon or lime. It heightens the flavor like you wouldn’t believe. But again, reserve your acid for the end of the cooking process or you’ll get tough lentils. If you are serving the lentils with their cooking liquid, in the last five minutes of cooking add a hearty splash of the acid of your choice. If you are draining the lentils before service, after draining toss the still-hot lentils with the acid. You won’t believe the way it wakes up the taste of even those lentils in the bag you found way in the back of the pantry…you know, the ones so old you don’t remember ever buying them.
One of my favorite ways to serve lentils is in a soup or stew. The way they cook down and thicken the broth with beany goodness is hard to beat. But, sometimes I want to serve something lighter. So when one of my cooking students asked for a simple lentil to serve for lunch, I decided to go the salad route. By draining the lentils and tossing with a horseradish and mustard vinaigrette before mixing them with salad leaves, they get a good coating in flavorful vinegar and mustard, then cover the leaves in it as well. This results in a salad where every bite has just enough dressing without running the risk of becoming soggy. Its warming, tangy, and has that wonderful horseradish kick that clears the sinuses and drives away the cold of the Alaskan winter for another day. No matter where you live, it is definitely a dish you need to try.
Lentil Salad with Sake-Poached Salmon in a Mustard and Horseradish Dressing
Note: This recipe is more of a concept, really. It works perfectly as described, but feel free to riff on it to your heart’s content. If you don’t like salmon, use shredded chicken or thin sliced pork or beef, or a poached egg, or nothing at all. If grainy mustard is too strong for you, use whatever mustard you like. Use as much or as little horseradish as you like (though I recommend keeping at least some in the dressing – you’ll be surprised how the vinegar and mustard mellow the heat). If you don’t like arugula, pick whatever salad greens you prefer. Experiment with different flavored oils or vinegars to make your dressing uniquely yours.
Filet of Salmon
1 to 1.5 cups of sake
1 pound bag of green (aka puy) lentils (If no green lentils, brown works too)
One medium sweet onion, in thin half-moon slices
2 carrots, washed and cut into medium dice
2 ribs of celery, cleaned and cut in to a medium dice
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups parsley leaves, divided into three portions
Some sort of salad greens like arugula or spinach (arugula is better because it is peppery and stands up to heat)
2-4 tbsp grainy mustard (aka deli mustard, with seeds)
Fresh horseradish root (or 2-3 teaspoons of prepared)
1/4 cup Apple-cider or white-wine vinegar
1/3 cup Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
- In a small amount of olive oil in a large cooking pot (6 quart is a good idea, as the lentils will expand while cooking and have a tendency to boil over in small pots due to their high protein content), sauté carrots, onion, garlic, and celery over medium heat for 10 minutes or until onions are translucent. Season with pepper, but no salt.
- Wash and drain lentils, removing any stones. Add to your cooking vegetables, stir to incorporate, and cover with water until at least 1 inch above the level of the lentils.
- Add your remaining herbs and aromatics – bay, thyme, and 1/3 of your parsley. Cover pan with a lid and simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes.
- While lentils are cooking, rinse your salmon filet, salt and pepper liberally, and place skin down in a cold shallow pan which can be covered with a lid.
- Add your sake and the second 1/3 of the parsley to salmon pan. Add additional water until fluid level reaches half-way up the salmon filet. Cover and barely simmer for approximately 8 minutes.
- When your salmon is cooked nearly through, cut the heat and remove the salmon from its cooking liquid. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and flake the salmon into a bowl, being careful to remove any stray bones you may encounter. Set aside.
- In a separate bowl, whisk vinegar with mustard, oil, and horseradish. Salt and pepper to taste.
- After 30 minutes, test the lentils for doneness by tasting a few. If they still feel unpleasantly hard, cook them a few minutes more and test again.
- When lentils are nearly done, add salt to taste, and finish cooking.
- Drain cooked lentils, remove thyme branches and bay leaves, and toss with the mustard vinaigrette while still warm. Then add the flaked salmon and the final 1/3 of the parsley.
- Serve on a bed of arugula, eat, and enjoy.
- Lentil Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette (alaskakitchenandgarden.wordpress.com)
- Salmon with Warm Lentil Salad (mypostcardsfromhome.wordpress.com)
- You: City Kitchen: A Lentil, That Object of Desire – City Kitchen (nytimes.com)