Friday, March 21, 2014

Lentil Salad with Bacon and Walnuts

Last Year's Post: Asian Roast Pork with Broccoli Slaw and Pasta
Two Years Ago:  Rustic Egg Tart

I never used to like lentils, probably because they looked suspiciously like the split peas in split pea soup which is an unfortunate muddy brown-green color and (in turn) looks a lot like baby food. Amazing how long the food traumas of our youth can stick with us past all rational thought, isn't it?  Once I realized that there are different types of lentils and they aren't all muddy-colored I decided to try them.  Happily, I discovered that they taste great as well as being good for you.  I then embarked on a lentil discovery mission that at one point involving five different types of lentils sitting in my pantry.  Even I admit that's probably overkill.  I discovered that big lentils end up mushy and muddy-colored, and red and yellow lentils end up mushy also although their color is better.  Small green or black lentils retain their shape when cooked and have a very pleasant firm texture while being tender at the same time.

So having come full circle, I now use the small French green lentils called "Lentils du Puy". You can find them in some natural food stores like Whole Foods and high-end grocery stores.  They may also be labeled as "French lentils" in the bulk aisle - just be sure they're dark green and small.

I was recently watching an "America's Test Kitchen" episode on lentil salads (which inspired me to make this recipe), and they confirmed that Lentils du Puy are the best because they hold their shape when cooked and have the best flavor.  They also demonstrated a very interesting technique for brining and oven-baking the lentils, which I'd never heard of.  Apparently brining the uncooked lentils helps make the skin more flexible so they don't burst, and oven-cooking is more gentle and again helps the lentils cook evenly to a creamy tenderness without bursting.  (If you're not familiar with America's Test Kitchen, they try as many as hundreds of variations of a recipe to develop the perfect technique.  They're even more obsessive than I am.)  Anyway, of course I had to try it.

The lentils didn't burst, but it took a long time to soak them and then bake in the oven. I found it took a full 70 minutes of baking before they were tender, which in my opinion isn't worth it.  I've simmered French lentils before without any issues so I decided to compromise for this recipe by calling for brining (which can be done in advance) and then simmering on the stovetop for just 20 minutes, as most other recipes call for.

The reason why I like lentil salads is because they're so versatile and good for you. You can serve them for lunch or dinner, at room temperature or warm or cold, and you can vary the ingredients to suit your taste.  I added cooked egg and avocado in addition to the bacon and walnuts with a little bell pepper for color, but you can add whatever you like.  For example, your favorite cheese could substitute for the egg or avocado.  Even with the tender lentils, the texture of the salad is surprisingly crunchy and very satisfying with the addition of the peppers, bacon and walnuts and the avocado (or cheese) adds creaminess.

For some reason this recipe seems very French to me, probably because of the French lentils and walnuts.  I can just see it served for a light spring or summer dinner with a bottle of very dry Rose wine and some warm crusty bread.

printable recipe
Lentil Salad with Bacon and Walnuts
Serves 4

1 cup French green lentils (lentils du Puy), uncooked
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bay leaf
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 minced shallot
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
Juice of half a lemon
1 avocado
3 hard-boiled eggs, cut into eighths
1 cup (loosely packed) baby spinach, chopped
3 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2/3 cup red bell pepper (or assorted colors), finely chopped

In a medium bowl, combine the lentils and 1 teaspoon salt.  Cover with 4 cups warm water and let stand for one hour.  Drain well.  (Drained lentils can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before cooking.)

Place the lentils in a large saucepan over medium-high heat with 2 cups of water, the chicken broth, bay leaf, and ½ teaspoon of salt.   Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.  Taste to be sure the lentils are properly cooked.  Drain well.

While the lentils are cooking, combine the olive oil and sherry vinegar with ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl, whisking to blend.  Add the shallots and thyme. 

Place the lemon juice in a medium bowl. Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit.  Using a small knife, score each half in a diamond pattern all the way down to (but not through) the shell.  Use a large spoon to scoop the flesh from the avocado shell into the bowl with the lemon juice.   Toss gently to coat the avocado pieces with juice so they won’t discolor.

When the lentils are still somewhat warm, place them in the bowl with the vinaigrette and toss to combine.  Add the spinach, bell pepper and avocado and toss again.

Serve topped with eggs, bacon and walnuts.  May be served warm, room temperature, or cold.

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