Lentils are really good, you know? No matter how many times you have them, they never get boring.
— Neil Wheedon Watkins Pye, The Young Ones
Lentils have a reputation as hippy chow, perhaps because of their status as a staple food in several of the stops on the “travel the world and find yourself” circuit. They’re also really cheap, and everyone knows hippies like cheap.
I love lentils in any form I’ve tried. The first was lentil soup, which was one of my favorite childhood foods, usually with salty ham or bacon flavors permeating the yellow-orange mush, which I would dip thickly buttered white bread into. It’s still one of my favorite comfort foods.
A little later in my childhood, I began to enjoy Indian food, and the various dal dishes which used lentils spiced in many ways.
My absolute favorite preparation of lentils, however, is a classic French lentil salad. It is often as simple as lentils tossed in a simple vinaigrette, with herbs and shallots, and sometimes other finely chopped vegetables and bacon mixed in. This dish couldn’t be further from the soup of my childhood — they are absolutely not cooked to a mush, and must keep their structure and separation. I first tasted this dish sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris in the heat of July, being misted by fans, which along with the beautifully savory chilled salad made the summer heat bearable.
Lentils come in many varieties. The classic lentils to use for this dish are the green Puy variety, grown in the volcanic soil in the Auvergne region of France. They are among the most expensive varieties, but you can substitute another dark green lentil, providing you are very careful not to overcook them. The variety I used suggested simmering for 20-25 minutes, but they were perfectly cooked after only 12, so pay close attention while they’re cooking.
If you overcook your lentils they’ll be useless for this dish, but will make a great soup, so set them aside and start again.
There are only two minor variations to make this dish vegetarian: substitute chicken broth with vegetable broth, and omit the bacon.
Serves four as an appetizer, or two as an entrée.
- 1 cup green lentils (preferably Puy)
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken (or vegetable) broth
- 4 slices bacon, chopped (or 2 tbsp more olive oil)
- One small onion, quartered and finely sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves, minced
- 4 leaves sage, minced
- 2 tablespoons capers, chopped
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Thoroughly rinse the lentils in a sieve, being sure to remove any grit or small stones.
- Add lentils and broth to a saucepan, bring to a simmer, and cook until they are what you’d call al dente if you were talking about pasta. There should be no crunch to the lentils, but they should still be firm, and maintaining their shape. This may take less time than the instructions on the package indicate. Test them frequently, and add a little water if they have finished absorbing the broth before they are cooked.
- Drain the lentils in a sieve, being careful not to break them apart now that they are tender, and set aside.
- Cook the bacon, if using, in a frying pan until crispy. Drain excess fat, leaving 2 tbsp behind with the bacon. If you are omitting the bacon, add 2 tbsp olive oil to a hot pan.
- Add the onion, garlic, rosemary, and sage to the pan containing the bacon (if using) and fat, and cook stirring frequently, for two minutes, releasing the fragrances from the onion, herbs and garlic, but not browning them. Remove from the heat.
- Using a small whisk, combine the olive oil, mustard, and balsamic vinegar in a large bowl until fully emulsified. To the same bowl, add the still-warm lentils, the bacon/onion/herb mixture, the capers and parsley, and gently toss until everything is coated with the vinaigrette. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Refrigerate for 30 minutes. This salad is best served chilled.