A week without lentils is a week without joy, as far as I’m concerned. I love lentils, irrationally and unconditionally. In fact, I would go so far as to extend that love to include all the brethren of lentilkind – beans, pulses, lentils, grains, legumes. I was that kid picking the kidney beans out of her bowl of chili (or, when the adults were being particularly vigilant for dinner table shenanigans, corralling the plump, burgundy beans into a safe haven) not to avoid them – oh no, heaven forbid – but to savour them at the end, alone and unfettered by any other tastes or textures.
…No….It wasn’t a lonely childhood….Why do you ask?
It will probably come as a surprise to no one, then, when I proclaim my love for this salad. Oh, I did love it so! The particular breed of lentil required, the Puy, is meaty and toothsome with an earthy flavour, and it paired nicely with the tangy sweetness of the tomatoes and the richness of the seed oil dressing. Fortunately, I got to experience this recipe deep in the heart of tomato season – I imagine if I’d attempted it when the tomatoes weren’t so plentiful or flavourful my runaway enthusiasm for it might have been reined marginally in. For winter renditions, a dab of honey or agave in the dressing should address the insipid tomato phenomenon.
A word or two of warning before you proceed, however. It’s not the prettiest dish in all the kingdom. She wears a dress(ing) which is VERY dark and plain. As I was shaking the oil and vinegar together in the jar, even I felt a moment of doubt. The beautiful green-gold of the pumpkin seed oil, once rattled around with the vinegar, became an unappetising, muddy brown. I beg you, don’ t be put off by this! Once the dressing is tossed into the salad, agaisnt the backdrop of the Puy lentils which are themselves rather dark hued and sombre, you would never know that it began life as a pool of swampy, cryptic liquid. For those that feel daunted by the seemingly endless vista of brown that this dish presents, the addition of a few extras such as another onion, a few more tomatoes, or even a handful of celery to brighten up the scenery wouldn’t be out of order, but I’d hesitate to tinker about too much with the general design. This is a very humble, rustic salad, and I daresay it wouldn’t take kindly to any attempts to glam her up. While it might not be a strong contender on the pageant circuit, there’s something to be said for homespun, natural beauties, too.
It was simple to put together, it tasted lovely and didn’t attempt to overwhelm any of the other flavours on our plates, and it helped me find, at long last, a use for that bottle of pumpkin seed oil that kept waving forlornly at me every time that I opened the cupboard. I’d mumble excuses or try to avoid eye contact, but I knew it was crouched in there, waiting, and the guilt was starting to weigh heavily on me.
Puy Lentil Salad
Adapted from a recipe from “Sainsbury’s Magazine,” November 2002
1 1/3 cups Puy lentils, well rinsed
2 bay leaves
Water to cover
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seed oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 red onions, diced
1 cup tomatoes, diced (The recipe called for “sunblush” tomatoes, but I used 1/2 cup of sundried tomatoes, soaked for 30 minutes, and a handful of homegrown cherry toms.)
2 tbsp, heaping, pumpkin seeds
salt and pepper to taste
1. Put the lentils, bay leaves and enough water to cover them by an inch into a large pan. Bring to boil, then simmer covered for about 20 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.
2. In a frying pan, gently toast the pumpkin seeds over high heat, watching and stirring them constantly so they don’t burn.
3. In a separate bowl or jar, combine the garlic, vinegar and pumpkin seed oil with seasoning to taste.
4. Stir the onion, dressing and tomatoes into the lentils. Scatter the toasted seeds on top, and drizzle with extra pumpkin seed oil.