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French in a Flash: Crispy Salmon with Lentils du Puy and Two-Mustard Crème Fraîche

It is no coincidence that a Frenchman uttered the eternal words, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." The French in a Flash translation: you are what you eat.

But I'm not sure if Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is entirely correct. I know, of course, that the French are the kings of philosophy, and I try in great earnest to never argue with a Frenchman, especially a philosophical one. But if Brillat-Savarin is correct, and we really are what we eat, then my father should look very different.

He should have shiny orange flesh, and gills, and bright, glassy eyes. He should have fins, and a tail strong enough to propel him against the current up the great waterfalls of the Northwest. He should come in farmed, wild, and Sockeye varieties. Because, Brillat-Savarin, my father eats salmon almost every single night. Maybe, somewhere under the sweater vests, corduroy pants, pink shirts, suspenders, and bifocals lurks a small set of fins, the ridges of gills, and a strong waterfall-fighting tail. Maybe if you were to open him up, his insides would be shiny and orange. But I seriously doubt it.

Or perhaps if you told Brillat-Savarin that you liked escargot, for example, he would tell you that you are a very slow-moving homebody, who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He might even call you sluggish. Maybe, similarly, if you told him that your favorite food is salmon, he would tell you that you possess against-all-odds tenacity and a healthy, glossy complexion, like my father.

Hmm. I took philosophy freshman year and vowed never to think that hard again. But if "I think therefore I am," then I am therefore I think. (Also uttered by a Frenchman!) I just can't help it. Good thing salmon is brain food. All philosophy aside, my father really does eat salmon every night, and one way the French traditionally prepare salmon is by pairing it with lentils.

It is a rustic, hearty, and beautiful meal—one that I cannot imagine being equaled in health by any other combination. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and lentils abound in iron, protein, amino acids, vitamin B1, folate, and fiber.

French lentils are different from the traditional brown lentils we find in our soup--the French kind, or lentils du Puy, are far smaller and darker, and retain their shape and texture with salmon-like vigor and tenacity, making them perfect as a side dish or salad.

For this recipe, I braise the lentils with carrots and shallots in wine and stock, until they are tender. Then I sauté the salmon until it is very crisp on both sides and just cooked through, with skin as perfect as a potato chip, and perch it atop the lentils. Over it all I dollop a two-mustard crème fraîche, with a tangy bite that melts down into the flakey folds of the fish, and pools creamy into the lentils below.

The combination of the legumes and the fish is buttery, but in a soul-warming, healthy way. And it's cheap: it comes to about two or three dollars a person. Plate it with some marinated Provençal olives, half moons of lemon, and a sprig of rosemary or thyme, and dinner is served. It looks gourmet, but it is all so easy. Just follow this recipe, and I promise, it will all go swimmingly.

Who knows, maybe you'll wake up the next morning with fins.

A Note on Some Ingredients

Salmon comes in so many different varieties these days. You use whichever you prefer. I, honestly, prefer to spend less, and avoid the Sockeye or wild in this preparation only because I think the farmed salmon has thicker, flakier flesh. But if you prefer wild salmon, by all means, go for it.

As I said last week, crème fraîche can be hard to find, or expensive. If that is the case where you live, whip up a batch of your own by whisking together equal parts of sour cream and heavy cream. Cover the container, and allow it to sit in the fridge overnight. Voila! Crème fraîche.

I strongly recommend that you find lentils du Puy for this recipe. As you can see from the photograph, they are small, dark, and rounder than regular ol' lentils, and they are so much firmer to the bite once they're cooked. Other lentils just turn to mush. I buy mine either at the Vinegar Factory in New York or in the bulk section at Whole Foods.

About the author: Kerry Saretsky is the creator of French Revolution Food, where she reinvents her family's classic French recipes in a fresh, chic, modern way.

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