Warm French lentil salad, a lesson in boosting flavor
(It took me over a week to get this post written and posted. Since then, the year has changed! Happy 2016 and here’s to a delicious new year!)
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I thought life would change with a little one in the house. I figured we wouldn’t get much sleep (and we’re actually doing much better on that front than I would have expected), that we wouldn’t be able to get out of the house that easily (and in the winter, that’s mostly fine with us anyway), and that we wouldn’t be in control of our daily schedules nearly as much (true more than I predicted). But I hadn’t really thought about how much more difficult it would be to cook, especially healthy meals, and how difficult it might be to get moving on a daily basis. Pre-baby we had a pretty solid exercise routine – gym, run, or yoga 7+ times/week – and while our diets were sometimes a bit indulgent, we primarily cooked meals from scratch and prepared a lot of vegetables.
But with baby, all of that has changed. We rely on takeout and quick meals much more than expected, especially considering evenings are the main time the three of us have together. We’re making an effort to turn that around, but some days it’s easier than others. Aldo is happiest rolling around on the floor with a pile of toys and an attentive parent or two, and he usually only lasts in a seat in the kitchen for 15 minutes or less – generally not enough time to get a healthy meal together.
But a few days ago, with Brett working from home during the day as sort of an ersatz Winter Break, I took advantage of a bit of energy and quiet time to pull together a healthy lunch of items we had in the fridge and pantry – French lentils tossed with mire poix and a mustard vinaigrette, topped with fresh parsley and some crumbled feta.
There are a lot of great lessons here on how to build flavor in something healthy:
- Sauteeing a base of carrots, onions, and celery (French cuisine’s “mire poix”) provides a good flavor foundation, essentially infusing the cooking fat with a ton of flavor that is then mixed throughout the dish. Most cuisines around the world have a classic combination of ingredients that get sauteed at the beginning of most dishes to provide this base of flavors, and in French cuisine (and thus much of American cuisine) it’s these three powerhouse ingredients.
- Just one small strip of bacon (if desired – it’s entirely optional) can add a big boost and provide some flavorful cooking fat, making something otherwise pretty healthy a little more enticing.
- Tossing the lentils and cooked vegetables in a vinaigrette pulls the dish together into a salad instead of a simple dish of lentils. This is true of any beans, grains, or veggies, and is a great way to build flavor if the dish will sit in the fridge for a few hours (or a few days) before you’re eating it.
- Fresh herbs and flavorful cheese (like feta, bleu, or chevre) bring a brightness and life that is particularly good if you’re eating this dish warm or at room temperature.
Any cooked bean or legume would work well in a salad like this – saute some flavorful veggies, toss in a vinaigrette, and add some herbs. Bacon and cheese will nearly never do you wrong, though be judicious if you’re trying to keep things on the healthy side.
Warm French lentil salad
Makes 2 large meal-sized or 3-4 more moderate servings
Adapted from Orangette
- 1 cup French/Puy lentils, picked through for pebbles and rinsed
- 3 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 strip of bacon, cut into 1/4-1/2″ strips (optional)
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1-2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- A few sprigs of thyme, leaves destemmed and roughly chopped
- A few Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 1-2 tsp. Dijon or other non-yellow mustard
- A small handful of parsley leaves, roughly chopped
- A small handful of feta or chevre crumbles
- Olive oil
– Cook the lentils Bring the lentils, water, bay leaf, and a large pinch of salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to medium-low, cover, and let cook until lentils are tender – about 20 minutes. Drain and remove bay leaf.
– Meanwhile, cook the vegetables Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the sliced bacon (if using). Cook until nearly done, then add a splash or two of olive oil so that the bottom of the pan is covered with fat. (If not using bacon, start with a pan over medium-high heat and add enough oil to slick the bottom.) Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and thyme and a large pinch or two of salt. Cook until vegetables are softened, 8-10 minutes.
– Make the vinaigrette and assemble Whisk together the red wine vinegar, a few Tbsp. of olive oil, and the mustard. Combine the drained lentils, cooked vegetables, and vinaigrette. Taste and adjust vinegar, oil, mustard, and salt as desired. Top with chopped parsley and crumbled cheese. Serve warm or at room temperature (cold is good too, but not as good).
Making ahead/storage: The assembled salad will keep well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. If you want to reheat it to serve, the parsley and cheese will be best added directly before serving (but can be reheated if they’re already added).