Much as I once was with beets (which is to say not a fan), The Bride used to be with lentils. I’ve long loved these little legumes, probably had my first infatuation with them as dal in the street food stalls of Mumbai (which was Bombay when I was there), and I brought it home with me. Sadly, it was not shared. Red, orange, green, yellow; I tried making all sorts of lentils for my then-girlfriend (now The Bride) in all sorts of ways, and to no avail. She said they all had an unpleasant aftertaste, and I figured that it must be some genetic thing, like people who find that cilantro has a “soapy” taste.
One evening, we were dining at a now-shuttered, much-missed restaurant, Zax in Brentwood, when they served lentils cooked in duck confit, and I ordered same, prepared to eat them all myself, if necessary. To my way of thinking, one could probably cook the contents of an ashtray in duck confit, and it would be at the least palatable. [I might be stretching the truth a w-e-e bit there.] Long story short, she had them and loved them. Yay! At first I thought that some chemical compound in the confit might have bound itself to whatever was triggering her (thankfully absent) aftertaste. But I also asked the waiter to query the chef (former Top Chef runner-up Brooke Williamson) on whether they had done anything special to prepare the lentils (other than the confit, of course): blanched them first, soaked them in brine overnight, something that I hadn’t thought to do. The answer: “No, nothing at all.” But she did mention that they had used Le Puy lentils.
Le Puy lentils, much like Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, may only be produced in a specified region, according to national law (and international custom, even though some disreputable sparkling wine producers call their product “Champagne” and some non-Italian cheeses claim – falsely – to be Parmigiano-Reggiano). They’re grown on the mountain plateau around the French town of Le Puy en Velay in the Haute-Loire region, whose climate and volcanic soil impart a particular flavor to the humble legume. In fact, they were the first French foodstuff, apart from wine and cheese, to be awarded the famous “Appellation d’ Origine Contrôlée” designation of quality and assurance of origin.
Above and beyond their terroir, Le Puy lentils are their own species (Lens esculenta puyensis), as distinct from other lentil species as a tasty Portobello mushroom is from the poisonous California Agaricus. Le Puy lentils tend to be comparatively expensive in America (generally $7 – $10 USD per pound/half kilo, though domestically grown versions may go for a little less), but they’re tasty, and The Bride likes them, so what’s a few extra bucks? That said, this recipe can be made with virtually any variety of lentil. Have a care, though; some varieties cook much more quickly, and some don’t hold their shape, turning somewhat mushy (though still tasty).
The original recipe from which this one was inspired came from an excellent cookbook by Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine, In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World. It chronicles two twenty-somethings on a tight budget trying to make tasty and inexpensive meals in their tiny kitchens. It’s a great starter cookbook for someone who’s getting their first apartment, but it also has some recipes that really resonated with me as well (I encountered it as part of a piece I wrote for the LA Review of Books a couple of years ago). I haven’t changed it much, although this version makes a double batch and adds kale, because California law requires kale to be an ingredient in every vegetarian recipe (just kidding, but it almost seems true).
BARBECUE LENTILS WITH SWEET POTATO AND KALE
1 cup / 200 g Le Puy lentils
4 teaspoons / 20 ml olive oil
2-3 teaspoons / 11-17 g salt
4 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 2 whole
1 onion, diced
1 small sweet potato or yam, diced
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon / .75 – 1.5 g dried chipotle pepper powder (or cayenne pepper)
1/8 teaspoon / .4 g ground ginger
1/2 cup / 120 ml ketchup
2 teaspoons / 10 ml Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons / 60 g brown sugar
2/3 cup / 160 ml balsamic vinegar
dash or two Worcestershire sauce (optional, leave it out for Vegan version)
1 small bunch kale, shredded
Bring the lentils to a boil with 3 cups (or 700 ml) of water and the two whole garlic cloves. Simmer 30-35 minutes, uncovered, until lentils are soft but still hold their shape. Toward the end of cooking, add 1 teaspoon (5.5 g) salt.
Wash kale, pat dry and shred, removing stems. (If you wish to include chopped stems in the finished dish, you’ll add them at the same time the lentils are added; otherwise, you can discard them.) Set shredded kale aside.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and minced garlic and sauté until soft and slightly brown. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until softened, about 5-8 minutes. Stir in the chipotle pepper and ginger, coating the vegetables, then add the ketchup, mustard, sugar, vinegar, and remaining 1-2 teaspoons (5.5 – 11 g) of salt (taste after adding the first teaspoon!), and bring to a simmer. Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking water, and add them and about 1 cup of cooking water to the pan. [This is also where you add the chopped kale stems, if you are using them.] Simmer until the sauce coats the lentils and is fairly well thickened. Taste for seasoning, adding Worcestershire sauce and sugar or vinegar if necessary. Somewhere around 15-30 minutes prior to serving, stir in the shredded kale, making sure to coat it all; give it time to soften to desired consistency, then serve.
FUN LENTIL FACT: The words “lens” and “lentil” both share the same Latin root, and it’s because a biconvex lens (like the one in your eye or a typical magnifying glass) is shaped like a you-know-what.