Thursday, April 19, 2012

springy lentil salad with citrus-mustard vinaigrette

lo, it is spring! the flowers are flowering, the birds are singing, and the chilly rain is still falling. but in between the cold and rainy days are drier, warmer days that stay light longer and longer and make you feel like maybe things won't be so bad.

i make a lot of variations on this salad, because lentils and mustard go well together and it's a nice, filling, and portable lunch that only gets better after you make it. i usually make a very large batch and we eat it (on and off) all week. also, it's vegan, which is nice. although sometimes we eat it with sausage, which is not vegan. usually.

these are french green lentils (or "lentilles du Puy") and they are the best for lentil salads because they keep their shape much better than the yellow or brown lentils that are always hanging shiftily around bulk bins. those lentils are great for dals or lentil soup, but for a salad these are really worth seeking out. i usually find them in the bulk section as well. they have a great texture and a bit of a peppery taste that i really like. fancy lentils! who knew?

because the dressing and vegetables add so much flavor to this salad, you don't really need to cook the lentils with much - just rinse them and put them in a big pot with water covering them by a few inches. i also usually add a bit of salt. then just bring the water to a boil, turn the heat down to low-medium, and let them cook for maybe 30 - 40 minutes, or until they're tender. the cooking time depends on how fresh they are, so just keep trying them. then drain them and add them to the vegetables that you have thoughtfully been preparing while the lentils cook.

you can use various vegetables - some fennel would be good, as would a little broccoli. i liked the orange and green color scheme that was going on with this batch, though.

just chop whatever vegetables you like into smallish pieces. i quartered the thicker parts of the carrots and halved the thinner ends, then cut them into pretty thin slices - maybe 1/8" or so. it doesn't have to be exact, of course. i sliced the celery lengthwise into maybe 3-4 strips per stalk, then cut it into thin pieces as well. the asparagus i cut into coins, for the most part, but left the ends whole. finally, i just diced up the orange bell pepper (green bell peppers are the devil and are not fit for human consumption).

oh! and a large shallot also got in there, but not in time for initial picture-taking.

you can just leave the vegetables raw, if you like, but i prefer to cook everything a bit to take the edge off. heat up like 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large pan (medium heat). then add the shallot (you could use onion instead, but shallots are a little milder and more garlicky), let it cook for a little less than a minute, then add the carrots and celery, let those cook a bit (2 minutes?), then the pepper. at this point, i also added a few tablespoons of chopped italian parsley and perhaps a teaspoon of dried thyme. fresh thyme would be good, but i didn't have any. other herbs would be nice as well - marjoram, any of the famed herbes de provence, etc.

let everything cook until the carrots lose their rawness - maybe 5 minutes or so, depending on how thick they are. add the asparagus towards the end, so it doesn't get too mushy - asparagus is so wonderful right now, you barely need to cook it at all.

then just stick everything in a bowl to hang out for a bit while you make the dressing.

i love when we're almost out of mustard because the jar makes a perfect vehicle for dressing and you don't have to try to scrape out the dregs of the mustard. lots of dijon mustard is good in this, because mustard and lentils are basically the chocolate and peanut butter of the savory food world. they just go together SO WELL.

since we're still in winter-spring crossover mode here in oregon, this salad really fits with both seasons. citrus is great right now, so i used the juice of a whole orange and a whole lemon, along with most of the zest of each. these, plus olive oil, the mustard, garlic, and salt are all you need for a very tasty dressing that brings everything together.

with the garlic, it's nice to make it into kind of a paste so it mixes in well. chop it fairly finely with about 1/2 a teaspoon of coarse salt, then use the side of your knife to slide across the cutting board, which helps the salt and garlic grind together. the rough salt crystals help speed up the process. once you get the hang of it, it's really fast. here's a video if that doesn't make sense.

everything goes into your mustard jar, then you can just shake it up, et voila!

it's best to have the dressing ready by the time the lentils are done, so that you can put it on while they're still warm - it seems to help the dressing get absorbed better. start with maybe 1/2 the dressing, toss everything together, add more if you like. i ended up using all of it, but there were a lot of vegetables and lentils to cover. add more salt as well, if needed. undersalting things makes them gross and bland. it's probably a good idea to add a little more fresh parsley and other fresh herbs, if you have them. sometimes it needs a little more acid, too - more lemon juice or some apple cider or sherry vinegar would be good. it just depends on what you like.

this is one of those salads that just gets better as it sits, so it's great for bringing to work all week. you can add things like goat cheese, sliced sausage, hard-boiled eggs, etc., if you want to bulk it up a little, but it's really quite filling on its own. it's also great for a picnic or potluck, since basically anyone of any dietary persuasion can eat it - vegan, gluten-free - it's got it all! or rather, doesn't have it, if "it" is animal products or gluten.

*ingredients* for A Lot of salad - you can cut it in half if you want
1 pound (~ 2 cups) dried french green lentils

1 large shallot
2 large carrots
2 celery stalks
1 orange, red, or yellow bell pepper (NOT GREEN)
1 bunch (more or less) of asparagus
thyme, other herbs

2 -3 tablespoons dijon mustard (i like it pretty mustardy)
juice & zest of 1 orange
juice & zest of 1 lemon
1 small/medium garlic clove
1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
maybe 1/3 - 1/2 cup olive oil (also to taste - i like more citrus and mustard and less oil, myself)

listening to: nothing, really, but i've had simple song by the shins in my head all day. and, of course, the weight. rip, levon helm.

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