The lentil moves uptown

Special to The Times

ONE of the best things about food is a syndrome I call Cone Contagion: You see someone eating an ice cream and you have to have one yourself. But I never associated it with anything nourishing until a friend happened to e-mail that he was making lentil soup one January night.

Lentils suddenly sounded liked the best idea cooking. No other dried beans are ready so fast with so little effort, and none taste as meaty even with no bacon added. They’re the right food for right now.

But while my friend was eating for comfort, I went looking for excitement. Lentils have become quite an upscale ingredient, with enough cachet to be routinely showcased in high-end restaurants, particularly of the French persuasion. And while they may not come in 31 flavors, there’s enough variety lately -- both from Europe and from the United States -- that a good cook no longer has to settle for those mushy, muddy specimens sold bagged in supermarkets.


Soup is almost not good enough for these wondrous new lentils. They have such distinctive texture and flavor that they can be used in more refined dishes: in a warm winter salad, simmered in a stew with spicy sausage, or arrayed alongside a slab of fish or a duck leg or a pork chop.

When I was hit with lentil cravings, my stock was depleted of all but the black, red and yellow ones I had rounded up when I was going through my Indian-food obsession a year ago. But those are almost a separate animal from what I was able to buy in a couple of swings through specialty markets. The three most widely distributed Western kinds are shiny black beluga lentils, dusky iron-green French lentils and light tan Italian lentils from Castelluccio or Colfiorito, in Umbria. (Somewhere out in cyberspace I could have found Spanish pardina lentils, but Penelope Casas’ forthcoming book says those need overnight soaking, which takes away at least half their allure if you need a fast lentil fix. As does paying far more for shipping than for product.)

Every one of these varieties will cook up tender but firm in less time than it takes to roast a chicken. They need no overnight soaking, or even any parboiling. And unlike almost all other beans, they taste rich and soulful all by themselves. Pancetta or chorizo or a ham hock can only take them into another flavor dimension.

Belugas are the relatively new lentils on the block, with most of them grown in the United States. As their name indicates, they are tiny, perfectly round and deep ebony, with a nice gleam to their skin. Even better, they look as good cooked as they do fresh out of the bag.

These are great in a soup or salad or just as a side dish with smoky bacon. But I thought they were most outstanding paired with a clean-tasting white fish, such as petrale sole, with rosemary cream. The flavor combination was inspired by a recipe in Fredy Girardet’s “Girardet,” and the lentils stand up amazingly well to the pungent herb. Their own delicately earthy flavor also plays off the richness of the sauce.

French green lentils have been widely available for far longer than belugas; the Puy variety actually holds an Appellation d’Origine Controlee, which certifies their origin and quality. The ones grown in the United States and Canada are even easier to find. In every case they are very nutty-tasting, like all lentils, but their color and texture set them apart.


These are my favorites for salads, especially warm salads, with duck -- confit or smoked -- or smoked salmon mixed in. Cheese also goes well with them, particularly goat cheese, which is now almost a cliche, but also ricotta salata, which has similar tang but a more crumbly texture. They take well to vinaigrettes made with nut oils and accented with chopped toasted nuts.

Lentils from Umbria are just as seductive. They resemble the French kind in shape only: The flavor seems earthier to me, and they take slightly longer to cook. In Italy they are eaten for good luck at New Year’s, traditionally with a stuffed pig’s foot called zampone. But I like how well they adapt to Mexican seasonings and chorizo in a tomatoey stew.

All lentils have assertive inherent flavor, so much so that I could eat a potful with nothing more than salt and pepper. But they are always enhanced with aromatics -- onions, leeks, shallots, celery and carrots, and basic herbs, including bay leaves, parsley and thyme. Traditionally they are cooked with an onion studded with whole cloves, which not only add extra flavor but also hold the onion together as it cooks. Adding a branch of fresh thyme or sage as they simmer takes them up another notch.

Once they’re cooked, lentils can be combined with just about any fresh herb, whether dill or parsley or cilantro. I even like them with tarragon, my least favorite herb; there’s something about the anise quality that brings out another layer of flavor in lentils.

One great trick I learned from cooking lentils Indian style is called tempering: After the legumes have been simmered with turmeric, you add a sliced onion, cloves, stick cinnamon and chopped jalapenos that have been sauteed quickly in ghee or clarified butter. The second set of seasonings gives a real jolt of flavor.

The most essential trick to cooking lentils is using water sparingly. If they simmer in too much liquid, all the earthy flavor leaches out. You need to add just enough water to keep them bubbling gently until they turn tender but not mushy -- this is one legume meant to be eaten al dente.


As Harold McGee’s indispensable “On Food and Cooking” points out, lentils cook fast because they are flat and thin (the word “lens” comes from the name) and have thin seed coats, so water does not have to permeate as far as it does in other dried legumes.

A good rule of thumb is to add water to about 2 inches above the level of the beans and aromatics. You can always add a little more if needed to keep them from drying out.

I also find salting them makes them turn tender faster, while stirring frequently helps them cook evenly. Always, though, the cooking time depends on how old the lentils are. The more geriatric, the longer they take.

The one drawback to top-shelf lentils is the price. Italian lentils set me back $5 a pound, while the supermarket bags are less than a fifth of that.

But then those poor relations are really best for comfort and soup. As in so many things in life, excitement costs a little more.


Lentils with chorizo

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (may vary depending on lentils)

Servings: 6

Note: Use fresh (not cured) Spanish-style chorizo, available at Gelson’s markets and at La Espanola Meats in Harbor City.


1 1/2 cups Italian (sometimes

labeled Umbrian) lentils

(Colfiorito or Castelluccio)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced

2 carrots, peeled and finely diced

1 stalk celery, peeled and

finely diced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt, plus more

to taste

1 (28-ounce) can plum


3 links fresh chorizo (about

10 ounces), removed from

casings and crumbled

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Sort over the lentils to remove any stones. Rinse well in a sieve under cold running water and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaf. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are wilted but not limp, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the lentils; stir to mix well.

3. Strain the liquid from the tomatoes into the pot. Cut the tomatoes into rough dice and add to the pot. Add 4 cups water and mix well. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often, 15 minutes, or until the lentils start to soften.

4. Add the chorizo, return to a simmer and continue cooking and stirring until the lentils are soft but not mushy and the mixture is stewlike, 20 to 30 minutes longer (depending on the age of the lentils). You may need to add a little more water periodically. Season with more salt if needed and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Each serving: 466 calories; 25 grams protein; 37 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams fiber; 26 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 42 mg. cholesterol; 796 mg. sodium.


Lentil and duck salad with hazelnut dressing

Total time: About 40 minutes (may vary, depending on lentils)

Servings: 4

Note: Confit duck legs are available at Surfas in Culver City or Nichole’s in South Pasadena.


1 cup French green lentils

1 leek, white part only, cleaned well and diced

4 cloves garlic, peeled

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste

1 carrot, peeled

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons Champagne

vinegar or white wine vinegar

1/4 cup hazelnut oil

2 confit duck legs

1/4 cup chopped chives

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small head frisee, washed, dried well and torn into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped hazelnuts

1. Pick over the lentils to remove any stones. Rinse well in a fine sieve under cold running water. Place in a medium saucepan. Add the leek, garlic, bay leaves and 1 teaspoon salt.

2. Cut the carrot in half crosswise, then lengthwise and add to the pot. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches.

3. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are just tender but still firm, 17 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove from heat and drain well.

4. While the lentils cook, heat the oven to 500 degrees. Whisk together the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Whisk in the hazelnut oil until emulsified.

5. Discard the bay leaves, garlic and carrot from the cooked lentils. Combine the lentils and all but 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette in a shallow bowl, mixing well. Set aside in a warm spot.

6. Lay the duck legs on a foil-lined broiler pan. Cook them under the broiler 6 inches from the heat source, turning once, until the skin is well crisped and the meat is warmed through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Using a fork and knife, shred or chop the meat and skin into rough pieces, trimming excess fat.


7. Add the meat to the lentils and mix well. Add the chives and tarragon and salt and pepper to taste.

8. To serve, toss the frisee with the remaining 1 tablespoon vinaigrette and distribute it among 4 salad plates. Top with the lentil mixture. Sprinkle with hazelnuts.

Each serving: 480 calories; 28 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams fiber; 26 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 52 mg. cholesterol; 863 mg. sodium.


Petrale sole with beluga lentils and rosemary cream

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: This is a flavor combination inspired by Fredy Girardet, who uses it with langoustines in his book “Girardet.”

1/2 cup beluga lentils

1 large shallot, peeled

6 cloves

1 carrot, cut into chunks

2 ounces pancetta, in one thick slice

1 cup chicken stock

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

3/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Cayenne to taste

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 (5-ounce) fillets of petrale sole

1. Sort over the lentils to remove any stones. Rinse well under cold running water. Place in a small saucepan. Stud the shallot with the cloves and add it to the lentils along with the carrot and pancetta. Add water to cover by 3 inches and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the lentils are tender but still firm, 17 to 25 minutes. Drain well. Discard the carrot and shallot with cloves. Cut the pancetta into fine dice and set aside.

2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken stock in a small saucepan over high heat and cook until reduced by half. Add the rosemary and cream, lower the heat and simmer until thickened to sauce consistency, about 15 minutes. Strain, discarding rosemary. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.


3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Season the sole well with salt and pepper. Place it in the pan, flesh side down. Cook 2 minutes, then turn it over and cook another 1 to 2 minutes, until barely pink in the center.

4. While the fish cooks, heat the remaining oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and fry until crisp, then stir in the lentils and heat through.

5. Lay each piece of cooked sole on a serving plate. Distribute lentils along one side. Spoon rosemary cream thickly over the lentils and around the fish and serve at once.

Each serving: 481 calories; 33 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 31 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 133 mg. cholesterol; 229 mg. sodium.