That about sums up our lentil repertoire, at least from my family kitchen standpoint. And let’s face it, lentils need some help, some gentle prodding, to taste superb. Which is why I’ve always admired the super-flavorful, if plain looking, lentils that find their way onto restaurant plates, say with golden seared scallops like those I had not long ago at the lovely Twisted Olive in Petoskey (it sounds like an urban martini bar but it’s a fresh little nook overlooking Little Traverse Bay, with a menu to match the views. But they will, I’m sure, serve you a martini if you want one. Which sometimes, you really do. I take mine with vodka, up, blue cheese olives. When that happens I better buckle myself in because there’s going to be some crazy vodka talk that can’t be contained).
The third dish in my personal lentil portfolio—and I do openly admit to just the three—I started making years ago when I lived on old Seminary in Chicago. I had begun devouring Saveur magazine, and in it there was a particular story about the grape harvest in Beaujolais, France, that captured my imagination so thoroughly that I would find my way over there a few years later. The food served to the grape harvesters in the story was hearty comfort food, but hearty comfort food French-style.
Around here when hard workers need lunch, the golden arches reign. Even if it’s not that bad, it certainly isn’t going to be a menu that includes a super-flavorful lentil salad rendered so with an aromatic cooking broth and a Dijon vinaigrette. Or one that includes the grape harvesters’ dessert of a custardy plum tart, a pastry that I still run to the kitchen to bake every year when the oval Italian plums are in season and that I feel terrible about not having shared with you (yet).
But back to lentils. When you make these lentils, it may seem like much ado about nothing to use a stem of thyme, a bay leaf, a few sprigs of parsley, especially when many of us can’t just run to the garden and pinch off what we need this time of year. Here is where we take a lesson in subtlety, where seasoning like this can only be achieved layer by layer, with that gentle prodding. Who among us is not like the lentil?
Don’t let the plain look of the finished lentils deter you, either. Their appearance belies their burst of flavor, which gets even better as they sit. These lentils make me think of Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in The Witness; plainsong is a song that is hardly plain. I like to heap the lentils in a French white porcelain gratin dish, a dish that, like the lentils, has more going on than first meets the eye. Both are well worth getting to know.
French Lentil Salad with Dijon
Use tiny French green lentils for this salad, and be careful not to overcook them. It’s worth the effort to use all of the aromatics in the cooking broth. The dressed lentils taste great at room temperature; they will keep in the refrigerator for several days. My recipe is based on one from Saveur’s story on a Beaujolais grape harvest lunch. Makes 4-6 servings.
2 cups French green lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 small yellow onion, peeled and halved
3 sprigs fresh parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, peeled
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
In a medium-sized pot, cover the lentils by about 1 ½ inches with cold water. Add the onion, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic clove. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the lentils are tender.
In a small bowl or glass jar, make the dressing. Add the mustard, vinegar, and oil and whisk or shake until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper, added a little at a time until it tastes just right.
Drain lentils, then remove and discard bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and onions. Dress the warm lentils with the dressing and add the shallots. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.
Print this recipe here.