It has been a while, has it not? Asparagus season is swiftly passing, and with it my urge to channel the Spargelfrau of Germany and prance merrily amongst the green stalks. Strawberries with all their intoxicating floral scent have arrived, leaving me with faintly stained fingertips and a culinary endorphin rush. Farmer’s market tables, being slightly delayed this year from the long winter, are suddenly exploding, tables heavily laden with a chorus of greens, oranges, and reds, every table calling out to the person hungry for fresh vegetables after the long winter.
And where have I been, you might ask? Working. Working. And then working some more. But with this begins a renewed effort to maintain a regular round of postings, both of my own devising, and visiting folks who make such delicious things as, well, beer. Because beer is always in season.
I have been thinking of you, dear readers, these past mute months. I have made things, eaten them, consumed them. I have occasionally photographed them, and then more often than not, I have just plow through the cooking so I could get to the good stuff and be done with it so I could eat and get back to work, work, and more work. And so I present to you a recipe not of my own devising at all (but of course I modified it to my own tastes.) A recipe that transcends seasons, as it can be a comfort and remarkably hearty in the cold, as well as lighter and filling without weighing down the gut in the warmer months we are now so blissfully sailing through. And it is… lentil salad.
I know, I know, the idea of lentil salad for some brings forth some horrific affair of muted brown colors and the bland vegetarian fare of the 70s-era variety. Or at least, it did for me. The last time I encountered a lentil salad it involved a well-meaning effort from an ex-boyfriend’s father who wanted to welcome me into their home and was accommodating his daughter’s vegetarian ways. Which to him meant lentils. And it was a pile of mushy brown lentils topped with some vinegar and oil. There might have been a scrap of carrot.
But did you know that there are many, many types of lentils? And they really don’t need to be mushy at all? Brown and green, the type we mostly know, the type I like to use in a nice pilaf. Red, which fall apart beautifully in soups. And the now more readily available ones with enticing, sexy sounding names like “French green” and “Beluga”, smaller, more saturated with color, glistening, more toothsome than the more standard fare. This recipe originated from one of my favorite sites, the Kitchn.
I scanned the recipe, looking for something that I could make easily that I could then pack every day for lunch. And something vegetarian, as I have a weird tic and really do not, for the most part, enjoy meat reheated in a microwave, which is all I had available there. I knew I could get French Green lentils fairly easily, but then my eyes lit on the amount of sun-dried tomatoes, and I almost called the whole thing off. They seem to be one of those things you are supposed to like. People seem to ooh and ahh when something involves a scrap or two of these desiccated vermillion bites. Me? I will confess… I really do not like them. Something in the process of drying makes them so cloyingly sweet I think they overwhelm everything in their immediate vicinity. I am convinced that simply placing them next to my coffeepot would cause my delicious brew to be tainted with their syrupy sweet flavor. And in looking at this recipe, in looking at all the other lucscious things therein, I decided that I needed to come to the defense of the warm walnuts, the crisp sweet peppers, the showers of mint and parsley, and I had to chuck the tomatoes.
And it was delicious. There was a lovely balance of sweet and savory, none being too bold or meek, and it had the added lunchbox benefit of being a salad that improved with age. The week I ate it (because believe you me, this recipe made enough to last solo me for a week and not tire of it) the weather yo-yoed between chilly dank and perfect sunny breezes, and somehow this salad bolstered my spirits every single day. The rich earthiness of the lentils felt delightful on the grey days, and the bright tang of the peppers and onions, the fresh hit of mint and parsley spoke of the promise of the warmer days that inevitably really did come.
So try it. Try it using their original recipe, if you are a fan of sun-dried tomatoes, or try taking them out. They have optional cheese involved, and much as I love me some cheese, it didn’t seem right after the tomatoes were gone, and without it was flatout vegan.
And with that, I have a head of lettuce soaking in the sink right now, slowly releasing dirt as it is fresh from the ground. So I can eat the sunshine now here in leafy form. And photograph it. And write it. Because I am back, ready to eat!
Colorful Lentil Salad with Walnuts & Herbs
A very, very slight variation from the original on The Kitchn
6 to 8 servings
1 pound (2 to 2 1/4 cups) dry Umbrian or green French lentils
4 cups chicken broth (optional) (I used water with a bayleaf and some lightly crushed black peppercorns and allspice berries)
1/2 cup dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes (optional, if you don’t like them like me)
1 large yellow onion
3 bell peppers (ideally a mix of orange, yellow, and red)
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 cup flat parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, divided (omit for a vegan salad, which I did)
1 lemon, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (make sure it is pure pomegranate molasses with no added sugar) (I could find pomegranate molasses, which felt miraculous, but not a variety with no sugar)
2 teaspoons flaky or kosher salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the lentils well and place them in a saucepan. Add the chicken broth, if using, or simply cover them with about 4 cups of water. Salt lightly. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and cover the pot, and cook the lentils for about 25 to 30 minutes. Test them after 20 minutes; cooking time will vary according to freshness and age of the lentils. You should turn off the heat when the lentils are toothsome and tender, but not yet mushy or falling apart. When the lentils are done cooking, spread them out on a baking sheet to cool.
Meanwhile, finely chop the sun-dried tomatoes and place them in a heatsafe container. Pour about 1/2 cup of boiling water over the tomatoes and set them aside to steep. (If you’re into that sort of thing.)
Dice the onion, and clean out the bell peppers and dice them as well. Finely mince the garlic. Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onion. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the onion is just beginning to be translucent, then add in the peppers and cook for a few more minutes, just until they start to soften a hair but still have snap. Add in the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly. (note: the original recipe had you adding everything and cooking for 4-5 minutes, but in my experience those onions were never going to be translucent until I had cooked the crap out of the peppers, which is no good, so I cooked them first. And added the garlic last, because I like the hit of fresh garlic.)
Turn off the heat and mix the onion mixture with the lentils in a large bowl. Drain the tomatoes (reserve about 1/4 cup of the steeping liquid) and stir them in (if you’re into that sort of thing,) as well as the toasted walnuts, chopped parsley and mint, and the lemon zest. Grate about 1 ounce of the Parmesan cheese and stir this in as well, if you are using.
In a smaller bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, the 1/4 cup of steeping liquid from the sun-dried tomatoes (or, you know, not… just a little more olive oil is delicious,) the lemon juice, and the pomegranate molasses. Toss this dressing with the lentils. Taste for seasoning, and stir in salt and pepper.
Spread the lentils on a serving plate or in a bowl, and use a vegetable peeler to shave the remaining Parmesan into flakes (if using.) Sprinkle these over top and serve.