Lentil salad for the gardener


As much as I like to cook, I’d rather be in the garden on the first warm, sunny days of spring when there are vegetable beds to prepare, flowers to plant and weeds to pull.

These are the days when I’m happy to have a protein-packed salad in the fridge, ready to pull out for dinner.  This lentil salad in the French tradition is a new favorite.

Although it began as a terrific warm salad, I’ve learned that it’s even better after it’s spent time in the refrigerator and the flavors have had a chance to meld.  I set it out on the counter long enough to come to room temperature, then serve it over a bed of chilled arugula.  Add a chunk of good bread and maybe some cheese and dinner is served.

Lentils are enjoying their moment in the spotlight thanks to a recent mega-study touting the benefits of a Mediterranean diet in cutting heart attacks and strokes in Spain.  All other things being equal, people who primarily ate vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes, nuts and olive oil were less likely to die of heart disease.

Participants in the study were instructed to eat legumes–which include lentils–three times a week.  Low in calories, these little seeds are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and minerals.  They cook far faster than beans, too.

The study reminded me of an elegant salad that I found some years ago in “Parisian Home Cooking,” by Michael Roberts (William Morrow, 1999).  The cookbook called for French lentils du Puy, which are sometimes difficult to find.  I substituted “French lentils” from the natural foods store and learned too late that they aren’t the same at all.  They turned to mush long before their cooking time was up.

So I’ve switched to black lentils, which hold their shape better, and revised the cooking instructions significantly.  You can use other green or brown lentils but watch them carefully as you cook so they don’t get too soft. Shallots contribute a mild, onion flavor while carrots and celery add extra texture.

Never content to leave well enough alone, I’ve revised the dressing to include sherry vinegar and walnut oil for mellow, nutty flavor.

Simple, healthful and full of flavor, this is my kind of salad.

Serves 41 1/4 cups black lentils
2 1/2 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons walnut oil
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsleyCombine lentils and 2 cups of the broth in a medium pan with thyme, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Reserve the remaining 1/2 cup broth for later addition if necessary.  Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and cover.  Simmer for 20-25 minutes, checking liquid levels after about 15 minutes and adding more if the lentils are starting to dry out.  Cook until lentils are tender to the tooth but still hold their shape.

Place cooked lentils in a large bowl and let come to room temperature.  In the meantime, heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and saute shallots, carrots and celery in the olive oil until soft but not browned.  Stir the hot vegetables into the lentils.

In a small jar, shake together the vinegar, walnut oil and mustard until blended.  Pour over lentil mixture.  Add parsley and toss.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Inspired by “Parisian Home Cooking,” by Michael Roberts.