|Lentilles de Puy Vinaigrette|
|Right Food for the Season - Late Winter|
|Written by Jane Ward|
This January day is frigid with the clear, bright, blue-skied kind of frigid that settles in on the heels of an Arctic blast. I’m sitting under a wool blanket as I work.
With the backdrop of numbing cold, we all need comfort, whether the comfort of warm wool blankets or the comfort of hot, hearty meals. And when I cook on days like this, instead of my favored bright, ripe, fresh flavors, I crave something dark and smoky. A day like today calls for lentils.
Lentils may be best known as a staple of a healthy and well-balanced vegetarian diet. And yes, lentils are good for us: naturally low in fat but full of protein, fiber, and iron, lentils make for satisfying eating as either complete main courses or nutritious side dish alternatives to white flour pastas, white rice, or potatoes.
The lentil, a legume with many varieties, is also versatile. Red lentils become daal, the spicy dish of stewed lentils common to India; brown lentils make rib-sticking vegetable- or meat-based soups; and the small, speckled green lentils, the lentilles de Puy, are at their toothsome best served warm or chilled in salads.
Best of all, though, lentils are delicious. No food would be so prized by so many cultures and cuisines if it weren’t delicious, and lentils deliver with a complex, naturally smoky and musky flavor; the nutritional value and versatility are added bonuses.
I love to serve pan-seared sea scallops on a bed of warm lentil vinaigrette, the lentils studded with crisp bacon pieces, or lardons. Bacon enjoys great popularity right now and, under the “bacon makes everything taste better” banner, can seem to turn up in every dish– sometimes even where it doesn’t belong. It’s no stretch, though, to marry lentils with bacon. Lentils and bacon together in the right amounts partner naturally, the meat bringing out – without overwhelming – the best of the lentils’ peat smoke characteristics. These lentils paired with scallops yield a dish that is both comforting and familiar (all the flavors of scallops wrapped in bacon) as well as a bit unexpected and sophisticated. And the sophistication is a snap to pull off. The lentils take little time, minimal effort, and pan-searing the scallops is the work of but a moment.
Lentilles de Puy Vinaigrette
1 cup French green lentils
4-5 strips thick-cut bacon (I use uncured, applewood smoked), cut into small rectangles
3 slender carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs celery, diced
½ yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Cook bacon pieces in large heavy skillet until crisp. Remove bacon from pan, drain on paper towel and reserve for later, leaving 2 Tbsp. of the bacon fat behind. Over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in the bacon fat until soft but not brown. Add carrots and celery and cook until tender. Set aside.
Then, rinse well 1 cup French green lentils (lentilles de Puy, although generic brown lentils are also fine here) under cold water and pick them over to remove any stones or debris.
Fill a medium saucepan two-thirds full with cold water. Add lentils to water along with 1 tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil then simmer lentils until tender but not mushy. Taste check every 10 minutes.
While lentils are cooking, make your favorite vinaigrette or try this simple one:
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ Tbsp. balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ clove garlic, minced and flatted with your knife into a paste
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
Combine all ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well to blend. Set aside.
When lentils are tender, drain them completely and place them in a deep bowl. Add to the warm lentils the sautéed vegetables and the reserved crisp bacon. Toss to combine, then add as much vinaigrette as you like to taste. Taste for salt and pepper and correct seasoning if necessary.
Serve warm or at room temperature topped with seared scallops or another favorite fish such as halibut, salmon, or Arctic char.