Of all the “good luck foods” served around the world on New Year’s Eve — long noodles, greens, pomegranates, herring, cornbread, pork, black-eyed peas and a dozen grapes, to name but a few — the one that makes the most sense to me is the lentil.
It’s (often) green like currency, usually shaped like a coin, and swells into greater abundance in liquid. It’s the perfect sign of future wealth and good fortune (a lot more than a cookie with a piece of paper in it).
Plus, talk about abundance: Lentils serve as a major source of protein for scads of the globe’s peoples. An Indian’s dinner, for example, wouldn’t be complete without some sort of dal. In truth, an Indian’s dinner sometimes is completely dal (with rice, for rounded-out proteins).
Lentils come in a rainbow of colors and are almost all small to petit in size. This latter feature makes them both easy and difficult to cook; easy, because quickly, but difficult because they can become mushy without watching.
Odd as these procedures may appear to a “no-salt-with-heat-and-beans” cooking culture, I’ve learned that a simple brining before the cooking, as well as a mild salting during, helps a great deal to produce lentils with pillowy, even creamy texture, and pliable yet intact skins.
Brining softens the lentil skins and allows the interiors to cook evenly, forestalling a too “al dente” bite to the lentil after the relatively speedy cooking time. Furthermore, the penetration of the cooking salt into the lentils’ flesh guarantees that pillowy texture.
Finally, I cook the lentils in a slow oven so that its soft, gentle heat both does not jostle off the skins and allows that inviting texture to develop.
I’ve made today’s recipe at least a dozen times. The completed dish is very refreshing in spring and summer, but adds brightness to the meals of darker, colder days. It holds well, so it serves as a fine side dish at a buffet. And it multiplies easily so it’s a happy addition when feeding a crowd.
It’s also fun at Christmastime because it’s green and red. (And, no, all you recovering Catholics out there: Lent is not named after the lentil, despite the efforts of English-speaking wordsmiths to forge that thought over the centuries and countless armies of nuns to convince you of the deliciousness of the food in the days leading up to Easter. Its Latin name, lens culinaris, is the base of its English name, as well as a reference to its shape, like the lens of a looking glass or of that in your eye.)
For the lentils listed in the ingredients, you may choose the common flattish green sort, or the more costly round green lentils of Puy, France, that resemble peppercorns when uncooked. Merely monitor the cooking time in the oven.
Lentil Salad with Red Peppers, Red Onions, Feta and Mint
- 1 cup green lentils
- 4 cups warm water, plus 4 more cups in reserve
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 whole garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
- 1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican or Mediterranean oregano
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
- 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
- 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- Rinse the lentils several times and place in a large bowl. Cover with the warm water and 1 teaspoon kosher salt; stir with your hands to combine the brine. Let soak for 1 hour.
- Heat the oven to 325 degrees and adjust the rack so that a large saucepan will fit on it. Drain the lentils and place them in a large saucepan with the bay leaves, bruised garlic, oregano and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cover with the 4 cups reserved water and bring to a gentle boil atop the stove, then place in the oven, covered, until the lentils are as tender as desired, from 40 minutes to an hour.
- Make a vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Drain the lentils, discarding the bay leaves and garlic cloves, and allow to cool down. (You may proceed with lentils that range in temperature from slightly warm to cool, as you wish.) Toss with the vinaigrette and the onions, red pepper, and more salt and pepper to taste.
- The salad tastes best at room temperature, but may be prepared up to a day in advance and refrigerated until service. To serve, toss the salad with the mint and crumbled feta.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com