This recipe is based on one from the Cook’s Illustrated “The Best Light Recipe” cookbook. The original recipe is for a lentil salad with scallions, walnuts, and roasted red peppers. But when Derek makes this dish he usually just makes the lentils, and doesn’t bother to add the other ingredients. He’s perfectly happy with just the lentils and the über simple mustard-olive oil-sherry vinegar dressing.
Add to a 4-quart saucepan:
- 2.5 cups beluga lentils
- 4.5 – 5 cups of water
- 1 tsp. salt
Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down the heat as low as it will go, cover the pan, and cook for about 20-40 minutes, depending on how low your stove will go. I usually use my smallest burner and check the lentils after 20 minutes. Once the lentils are close but not quite done just turn off the heat and let them steam with the lid on for another 5-15 minutes, until cooked but still a tad al dente. At this point all the water should be absorbed. There shouldn’t be any water left in the pan, but if there is you should drain the lentils, because the liquid will dilute the dressing. Be careful to treat the lentils very gently so that they retain their shape and don’t turn to mush!
When the lentils are cooked and all the water is absorbed or drained away, add the vinaigrette ingredients to the lentils:
- 5 Tbs. sherry vinegar (red wine vinegar will also work, but won’t be as good)
- 5 Tbs. olive oil (a nice fruity one!)
- 2.5 – 3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
- freshly ground black pepper to taste (lots!)
Mix in the vinaigrette and then add in any nuts, raw veggies, or other add-ins of your choice (feta? olives?). The original Cook’s Illustrated recipe calls for:
- 5 thinly sliced scallions
- 1.25 cups minced roasted red bell peppers (about 5)
- 3/8 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped
Often I just add whatever I have on hand that will add crunch and color. For example, last time I added grated carrots, julienned radish, and chunks of red bell pepper. Sometimes I just serve the lentils in a half of a yellow or red bell pepper, or use the pepper to scoop up the lentils and take a bite. Yum.
Depending on how many veggies you add, this recipe serves 6-8 as a main course and 10-12 as a side
We’ve made this salad several times in the past, and Derek always loves it. The sherry and mustard combination is quite strong—maybe a bit overpowering even. I’ve actually increased the lentil to vinaigrette ratio. Originally the recipe called for 2 cups of lentils for the above amount of vinaigrette. Derek prefers the original ratio, but I find it a bit too strong. But it really depends on how many veggies you add. If you add a whole lot of vegetables then you may need to increase the dressing amounts.
The original recipe has you simmer 1 cup of lentils with a halved onion, 2 bay leaves, a sprig of thyme, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 4 cups of water, for about 25 to 30 minutes or until tender. Then you’re supposed to drain the lentils. But I usually don’t follow this part of the recipe. I don’t find that the additions add much flavor, and draining the lentils seems like an unnecessary step. You end up draining away a lot of the cooking liquid and hence losing a lot of the lentil flavor, and presumably some nutrients. Plus, my lentils often ended up overcooked. I prefer to use 2-to-1 water to lentils, and that way all the water gets absorbed.
How to cook the lentils so that they retain their shape
The most challenging part of the recipe is getting the lentils to soften without falling apart. The amount of cooking time depends on the age of the lentils and how high your heat is, so you definitely need to watch them. You can’t assume they’ll take any fixed amount of time. They go from being tender and a bit al dente to mushy in the blink of an eye.
Cook’s Illustrated says that lentils du Puy (French green lentils) hold their shape better than common drab brown or green lentils, which turn mushy after tossing with dressing. They also recommend Beluga lentils (the tiny black ones) for salad, but they’re much more expensive. I can get the French ones for cheap in 1 kilo bags in the French grocery stores right across the border, so I often use those, or beluga lentils from DM.
I checked some other Cook’s Illustrated recipes and found a more recent lentil salad recipe on Cook’s Illustrated that says “It’s hard to cook lentils perfectly. Too often, either their skins burst and their flesh turns to starchy mush or they don’t cook through completely and retain chewy skin and a hard, crunchy core.” They say the solution is to brine them in a combination of warm water and salt for a few hours, then cook them in the oven (because even the lowest setting on the stovetop is too high). They suggest a ratio of 2 cups of lentils with 2 tsp. salt and 8 cups 110 degree water (about 43 degrees Celsius)!
Another idea to help the lentils retain their shape would be to cook them with a little acid. I haven’t tried this, but CI says that vinegar “doubled the cooking time and gave the lentils a rather grainy texture. Subsequent tests with wine and tomato yielded similar results. This is because acids interfere with lentils’ ability to bind with water. This in turn causes them to take longer to soften and to have a rather dry taste. So unless you’re using lentils in a slow-cooking dish and want to lengthen their cooking time, avoid cooking them with acidic ingredients.”