The small pleasures of lentils

by sanae

Recently I came across an old recipe in my mother’s notebook for a lentil terrine. I had forgotten all about this dish until now, and it’s still just beyond my grasp. I remember a firm log of brown lentils with the texture of pâté, sliced into thick rectangles. What stayed with me is the earthy flavor of lentils, mashed together into a greyish brown paste. It sounds unappetizing, and yet I’m certain I liked it, loved it even, just as I loved everything my mother cooked and put on our table.

We ate lentils in other forms, of course, especially in soups and dals. Those were usually made with a homemade broth and vegetables cut up into the tiniest pieces by my mother’s Japanese knife skills. The dals were golden yellow from turmeric and gently spiced with ginger. We rarely ate garlic back then, so I think the lentil stews were mild on the nose.

I didn’t begin cooking lentils until much later. My college roommate made a Greek lentil soup with carrots, onions, chicken, and tons of garlic. She had a salty palate and always seasoned her food like a chef, transforming her lentil soup into an addictive elixir, best eaten late at night when we took a break from writing essays. Another roommate, this time in Brooklyn, often made a French lentil salad: it was rustic and held up for days in the fridge; lentils cooked just shy of doneness so they’d remain distinct, even as they absorbed the dressing.

This summer, when I started working a full-time job that doesn’t feed me (I’d forgotten what it’s like to spend a day in an office without getting fed, to not be part of a kitchen, strange!), after a few whirlwind mornings of cooking upon waking up, I made up my mind to prepare my lunches in advance. It’s gotten better. I no longer wash dishes in a complete frenzy before hopping on the train (well, sometimes I still do) and, more importantly, I’ve discovered the ideal warm-weather lunch: lentil salad.

Now the weather is starting to change, even though it’s still warm in the afternoons and an arctic wind blasts through my office AC. I can sense the cooler months standing an arm’s reach away. I’m relieved it’s no longer hot and sticky through the night, my small kitchen transformed into a furnace, and yet I know I’ll regret summer as soon as I turn my back. Maybe soon the lentil salad will become a lentil soup.

But for now, I’ll continue to make lentils on Sunday afternoons. It’s the salad I ate all summer long, day after day. Often it sat in my fridge for a good four days and held up fine. I love fresh mint with lentils, but I found the mint didn’t survive well beyond a couple of hours. So if I’m not serving the salad the same day, I use parsley as a fresh herb. Basil of course adds the very best fragrance, but again, it’s not as sturdy as parsley.

I’ve tried chopped figs and dates, and I still prefer currants for their small shape and the ease of throwing them in without dirtying another knife. They fit right in with the lentils. When I’m pressed for time, I use David Lebovitz’s brilliant technique of throwing in chopped onions and carrots in the last minutes of cooking. When I have more time, I sauté them with coriander and cumin for the pleasure of filling my kitchen with their fragrance. I’ll often add coriander and cumin again to the dressing. If I’m having guests over I may throw in cinnamon, though I don’t love cinnamon myself. If you don’t mind the yellow stain in your Tupperware, try a half teaspoon of turmeric. Two crushed garlic cloves and a sprig of thyme added to the cooking liquid go a long way toward flavoring the lentils.

And then there are the lentils themselves. They are resistant to time, but they’re also delicate because they cook so quickly. I always rinse mine in a fine-mesh sieve and run my fingers through them in case there’s a stone hiding. Then I cover them with two inches of water because I know they’ll absorb a great volume of liquid in fifteen minutes. I’ll bring them to a simmer and season with salt halfway through. I begin tasting them at the fifteen-minute mark. Sometimes they take eighteen minutes, other times closer to twenty-five, depending on their age. I always add the dressing to the lentils when they’re freshly-drained and piping hot, when it can penetrate right into their core, seasoning every last one. It’s what separates a bland lentil salad from a vibrant one.

I’ll use whatever nut I can find in my kitchen (I like to keep mine in the freezer), but I prefer walnuts or almonds for their aroma when toasted until golden on the inside. I love when they’re just on the edge of becoming bitter, when they impart a distinct roasted element to an otherwise ovenless recipe. Pepitas and sunflower seeds provide a pleasant crunch, but they’re milder in flavor and tend to disappear among the lentils. I think feta adds a tang and bursts of creamy indulgence, and I could see a sharp Manchego, cut into small pieces or shaved with a vegetable peeler, bringing out the best of all components in this salad. Give them both a try.

Lentil Salad with Dried Fruit, Parsley, Nuts, and Feta

For the lentils:
1½ cups lentils du puy (French, small dark green), picked over and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 to 3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped

For the dressing:
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander

For assembling:
½ cup dried currants
1 cup toasted walnuts or almonds, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley
1 cup crumbled feta cheese

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place lentils, garlic cloves, and thyme in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches (5 to 6 cups at least) and bring to a boil over high heat (well, if you’re bringing to a boil, you should always be over the highest heat possible!). Reduce heat to a vigorous simmer and cook until lentils are starting to soften, 12 minutes. Add shallots, carrots, and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are just tender, 5 to 10 minutes more. Drain lentils in a fine-mesh sieve, discarding thyme and garlic.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk Dijon mustard with vinegar, cumin, coriander, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add olive oil in a steady stream, whisking to combine.

Add hot lentils to dressing and toss to combine. Let cool to room temperature, tossing occasionally, about 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the lentils seem dry, drizzle with olive oil.

Just before serving, add currants, nuts, and feta cheese. Salad will keep refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to 4 days. I like to add a half avocado if I’m taking the salad to work. I keep a small container of fleur de sel close by, in case the salad needs more seasoning, and because what else can you do to make eating at a desk more pleasant?