I've never had much use for lentils. They always seem a little too boring, too bland, too brown. On cold days I prefer tomato soup; and when preparing main-course salads I'd sooner pop open a can of chickpeas than bother with simmering a pot of dried legumes on the stove. But something caught my eye about the recipe for green lentil salad with hazelnut vinaigrette in the October issue of Food & Wine.
I'm not entirely sure, but I think it was the bacon.
Without bothering to read through the procedure, I hit the supermarket for ingredients. The list was long, but mostly made up of stuff most people already have on hand—bay leaves, carrots, chicken stock. All I needed was the bacon, some fresh herbs, and the lentils, of course. But I didn't realize in order to make the salad I would have to make a bouquet garni.
I don't know why, but I'm phobic about bouquet garnis. Some cooks fear soufflés, some reductions, some yeast. For me, it has always been little bundles of cheesecloth. They strike me as labor-intensive, complicated, and chancy—what if it come apart? What if the cheesecloth disintegrates and leaves little strands behind in my final dish?
As I soon learned, all of this was irrational and unfounded. Preparing my tiny cluster of peppercorns and parsley really wasn't all that scary. Furthermore, it held up beautifully against a solid 40 minutes of simmering, and subtly perfumed my lentils with spice and flavor.
Aside from the bouquet garni, the remaining components of the salad were straightforward: a carrot and onion sautéed in bacon fat, a simple vinaigrette made from hazelnut oil (use toasted, if you can find it), and sherry vinegar. The procedure didn't say what to do with the bacon once it was cooked, so I reserved it and crumbled it over the salad before serving.
The final result was earthy, crunchy, and full of complex flavors: the nutty dressing; the smoky bacon; the pungent combination of garlic, onion, and shallots. It was a lovely salad, perfect for a brisk autumn lunch, and enough to change my mind about lentils. And spice bundles.
- Yield:6 servings
- 15 black peppercorns
- 6 parsley sprigs
- 5 thyme sprigs
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 thick slices of bacon, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices
- 1 medium carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
- 1 1/2 cups French green lentils (10 ounces)
- 1/4 hazelnut oil
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
Wrap the black peppercorns, parsley sprigs, thyme sprigs, cloves and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth securely with string.
In a large saucepan, cook the bacon over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 minutes. Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat. Add the diced carrot and onion and the minced garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the herb bundle, chicken stock, and green lentils and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain the lentils, transfer them to a large bowl and discard the herb bundle; keep warm.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the hazelnut oil with the sherry vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Pour the hazelnut vinaigrette over the lentils and add the shallot. Toss the salad until the lentils are evenly coated. Serve the lentil salad warm.
Make ahead: This salad can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 1 day. Let the salad return to room temperature, or rewarm before serving.