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Lovely lentil salad. June 4, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Let me say upfront that I love hot lentil dishes, and every color of lentils from green through brown, yellow, orange (“red”), and black. Give me a spicy Indian dal and rice, hearty lentil stew and cornbread, or vegetarian moussaka with Greek-spiced lentils instead of ground beef, and I’m ecstatic. Spicy lentils and feta in phyllo rolls? Oh, yum. What a take on egg or spring rolls!

But I admit that I’d never heard of cold cooked lentils until I discovered a wonderful winter salad at a local restaurant, Cafe Santosha, a couple of years ago. The salad featured a bed of mixed greens topped with cooked and cooled beluga lentils (small black lentils named for their resemblance to caviar), beets, crumbled feta cheese, walnuts, and pickled sliced red onion. It was dressed with a simple vinaigrette. And it was totally addictive!

Still, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to try my hand at making a lentil salad myself. Maybe it was just because Cafe Santosha was ten minutes from my house; maybe it was because I didn’t think our friend Ben (a notorious beet-hater) would like it.

Whatever the case, an e-mail from America’s Test Kitchen the other day changed my mind. It featured a recipe for a lentil salad with kalamata olives, fresh mint, and feta cheese. The recipe was easy to make and disclosed the Test Kitchen’s solution for making sure that the lentils were cooked through but still held their shape. This is critical for a cold lentil salad (as opposed to dal or lentil stew or a lentil soup), but it’s super-hard to achieve if you boil the lentils on the stove, even for a short time. Your goal for a lentil salad is firm, plump, but tender lentils.

The Test Kitchen recommended a two-step process. It suggested first brining 1 cup of dried green French lentils (picked over and rinsed) in 4 cups warm (110 degrees F.) water with 1 teaspoon salt for an hour. Next, it told you to drain the lentils and add them, with 2 cups water, 2 cups chicken broth, 5 smashed and peeled garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to an oven-proof dish. You then put the covered dish on the middle rack of your 325-degree F. oven and bake for 40 to 60 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still remain intact.

Unfortunately, the directions didn’t say whether you were supposed to serve the lentils hot, at room temperature, or chilled. They just said to drain the lentils well after cooking and discard the garlic and bay leaf, then add 1 large minced shallot, 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted kalamata olives, and 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, stirring well to blend. Pour over the lentil mixture 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil whisked with 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, mixing well to coat, then sprinkle over 1/4 cup (1 ounce) crumbled feta cheese.

Er. I’m a vegetarian, so I knew that I’d have to substitute veggie broth for the chicken broth. And while I was at it, I thought I might try a few other switch-ups as well. As usual, I couldn’t find my bay leaves (darn it, I know they’re around here somewhere), but I’ve found that basil and mint pair really well in salads, so I used basil instead.

I happened to have fresh mint leaves on hand because a stand at our local Kutztown farmers’ market sells them and watercress (yum). And wonder of wonders, I had two large organic shallots in my allium bowl (which is always brimful with sweet onions, “red” salad onions, garlic, and the like; here at Hawk’s Haven, onions are us). I decided to add chopped scallions (green onions) as well to punch up the onion flavor. And I’d gotten a Greek olive “salad” (mixed pitted green and kalamata olives with some red bell pepper in vinaigrette) at the farmers’ market as well, so I decided to use that instead of straight kalamata olives.

Of course, I’d only begun to mess with the recipe. I had a container of cubed feta on hand, and hey, there’s no such thing as too much feta, right? So rather than crumbling on a measly ounce, I figured I’d use it all. And rather than white wine vinegar, I decided fresh lemon juice would hit the spot (though any one of my citrus-infused white balsamic vinegars would have been perfect, too, I just thought I’d go for the basics this time).

No thanks to OFB, I forced myself to leave beets out of the equation. But I couldn’t resist serving up this lentil treat on a bed of fresh mixed greens (courtesy of a local Mennonite farm stand). I decided to serve the lentils at room temperature, and to add luscious yellow cherry tomatoes for added color and flavor. If I’d chosen to serve the lentil mix hot, I’d have paired it with basmati rice and served the greens, tomatoes, and etc. as a side salad.

While we’re talking about this recipe, let’s not forget the wise words of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, whose maxims inspired us to create Poor Richard’s Almanac. “Waste not, want not” came to mind as I read the America’s Test Kitchen instructions to toss the garlic, bay leaf, and broth after baking the lentils. Why?! Here you’ve made a perfectly delicious base for lentil soup.

Instead of tossing my soup stock, I saved some of the cooked lentils and added them back into the broth, retaining the smashed garlic cloves. I’ll make OFB and me a delicious soup by adding diced tomatoes, chopped baby ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes, a diced sweet onion, and sliced carrots. It will make a great supper with hot-from-the-oven cornbread and a big, crunchy salad topped with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and pepitas (roasted sunflower seeds). Or instead of cornbread, I might broil some slices of black bread with caramelized onion and shredded Gruyere cheese… hmmmm… yum!!!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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