In love with lentils
For most folks, the Incredibly Delicious bakery means world-class croissants,
artisinal breads, beautiful pastries and cakes and lovely lunches served in a
gorgeous historic mansion. As a friend recently said, “I certainly hope Springfield realizes what a treasure we have in him (master
baker, chef, and owner Patrick Groth).”
I absolutely agree. And there’s more. Groth also sells a few non-bakery specialty items. Quality olive oils and vinegars predominate, but there are also unique, sometimes surprising, items.
Recently I could hardly believe my eyes when I spied bags of small greenish-grey discs. “You’ve got French lentils!” I exclaimed to Groth, as he hurried by, holding aloft a tray of intoxicatingly fragrant baked goods.
The French part wasn’t surprising. Groth graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and is a dedicated Francophile.
Even so, French lentils, a.k.a. lentils Le Puy can be hard to find in big American cities, let alone in Springfield. Whole Foods grocery stores, for example, don’t carry them. For years, procuring them took real effort. Thanks to the Internet, though, it’s easier these days.
Why make such a big deal about lentils? For decades most Americans’ only acquaintance with lentils was in soup, often tasty, but hardly exciting. Then in the ’60s and ’70s, books such as Francis Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet extolled lentils’ many nutritious virtues. Unfortunately, in most of those health-conscious tomes, taste wasn’t a consideration. As former New York Times food critic and current Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl says in her memoir, Tender at the Bone, “The recipes were nutritious, politically correct….and dreary.” Lentils were boring.
Americans’ ever-widening appreciation for ethnic foods began to change lentils’ reputation — especially in Indian cuisine. Indians are the largest consumers of lentils (daal), typically eating them at least once daily. The variety of Indian lentils ranges from yellow to red to black, but like traditional brown lentils, they rapidly disintegrate — becoming effectually puréed — when cooked, limiting their uses to such dishes as soups and stews. When cooked to a denser mass, they’re often used, singly or in combination with other ingredients, as meat substitutes beloved by vegetarians.
Le Puy lentils, the tiny black lentils called Beluga (named because they resemble Beluga caviar) and Spanish Partinas lentils, are different. Because they keep their shape when completely cooked (unless seriously over-boiled), these lentils can be used in ways the others can’t. All lentils are highly nutritious, and good sources of protein. Belugas are especially (24 percent) protein-rich. Another advantage is that, unlike beans or other legumes, they don’t have to be presoaked, and only take about 15 minutes, making them ideal for a quick meal. And, I almost forgot to mention, they not only provide great and intriguing texture, but also wonderful flavor.
I’ll still purchase Beluga lentils on the Internet at sites such as
www.chefshop.com and Partinas lentils at Spanish food sites such as
www.tienda.com. But none of those Web sites can provide me with an incentive to
buy their Le Puy lentils that Incredibly Delicious offers: a perfect excuse to
snag one of those croissants!
Contact Julianne Glatz and email@example.com.
I occasionally use common brown lentils for soups and Indian lentils when preparing Indian dishes, but I use the de Puy and Beluga lentils so often (typically several times monthly) that I always keep a supply on hand.
In warm months I’ll prepare a salad of the cooked, room-temperature or chilled lentils, thin slivers of sweet onion, peppers and fresh herbs (flat-leaved parsley, rosemary, marjoram — whatever I have on hand) tossed with a simple vinaigrette and served on lettuce leaves. I almost always use Spanish sherry vinegar in the dressing. It’s my hands-down favorite, most often-used vinegar, with a wonderfully nutty flavor — and another thing that locally is (to my knowledge) only available at Incredibly Delicious. Endless variations are possible: slivers of apple, fennel bulb, etc. can be added to or substituted for the raw vegetables. Use it as a side salad, or add crumbled feta cheese and/or shrimp to make a main course.
In cooler weather, I often make a leek or onion and lentil gratin. Sauté thinly sliced white part of leeks or onions in a little butter or olive oil until soft and tender. If using onions, they can continue to cook, uncovered, until they become caramelized, if you desire. The proportion of leeks/onions to lentils can vary, but use at least one cup of (uncooked) sliced leeks/onions per cup of lentils. Stir in a bit of cream or sour cream if you’d like. It’s entirely optional — but be careful: the vegetables should be just barely coated with cream, not swimming in it.
Season to taste with salt and pepper, add a few pinches of fresh or dried herbs, and pour into a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs combined with grating cheese, such as Parmesan, then bake in a preheated 350° oven until the top is browned and the contents are bubbling, about 20-30 minutes.
I most often cook them with onions and/or garlic and herbs either alone or combined with couscous, as in the pilaf below, and serve them either alongside or underneath lamb chops, pork chops, salmon, chicken etc.
Regular instant couscous is another of the busy cook’s best friends. But Israeli couscous — another hard-to-find item exclusively available locally at Incredibly Delicious
— is extra special and as quick to prepare as lentils. Sometimes called “pearl” couscous, the tiny balls are about the same size as the Le Puy and Beluga
lentils, and have a unique texture and flavor (they’re lightly toasted) that’s wonderful alone, in soups, and in this pilaf.
LENTIL AND COUSCOUS PILAF
½ c. French green lentils (lentils de Puy) or black Beluga lentils
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, smashed, or ½ tsp. minced garlic
kosher or sea salt
½ c. thinly sliced onion, not super-sweet
2 T. unsalted butter
¾ c. instant couscous or ¾ c. toasted Israeli couscous
1 c. water or chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, plus additional if needed
Combine the lentils, bay leaf and garlic in a small saucepan, add water to cover by one inch and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook until the lentils are tender, but still hold their shape, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, drain, mix in a large pinch of salt, and reserve.
Return the saucepan to the stove and melt the butter over medium heat. Add the
onions and ¼ tsp. salt, cover the pan and let the onions “sweat” for a few minutes until they are translucent. Uncover the pan and continue to
cook the onions until they are caramelized and golden brown, 15-20 minutes.
Add the water or stock to the pan and bring to a boil. Add the couscous, stir to combine, and cover the pan. If you are using instant couscous, remove from the heat. Let stand for 5 minutes, or until the couscous has absorbed the liquid. Stir to fluff the couscous.
If you are using the Israeli couscous, cover the pan, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, and cook until the couscous pearls are cooked through, but still “al dente” and not mushy — about 10 minutes, although I’ve found that this varies with different varieties, probably because some are toasted more than others. You may need to add a little additional water or stock. Let stand for a few minutes; if the liquid is not completely absorbed, drain it off.
Add the lentils and mix until well combined. (If the lentils have completely
cooled, reheat them gently in the microwave before adding to the couscous.)
Serves 2 - 4