Lentil salad

Lentil salad is one of the first things I ever learned how to make, over 30 years ago, and I’m still making it today…

Part of the reason for this is because it reminds me of my best friend’s mother, Rosa, one of my first cooking heroes. She had a wooden recipe box on her kitchen counter that was stuffed with Craig Claiborne clippings from The New York Times, and was the only person I knew who made special trips to track down special ingredients, never quite content with the local supermarket where the rest of us shopped. No matter when I walked into her kitchen, it smelled amazing, and best of all, for two always-starving teenagers (Rosa’s daughter, Jeni, and me) the refrigerator was always packed with leftovers. We knew we hit pay dirt when those leftovers were her shepherd’s pie or her lentil salad.

Lentil salad

The other reason I’m still making her lentils is that they are so easy. Easy enough for an ambitious teenager to make and an easy enough starting point for a busy person who wants to just make sure there’s something healthy on the dinner table, for herself or her family. The recipe that Rosa handed to me (which I later copied in my own handwriting and glued into my spiral-bound “recipe book” — that’s how young I was and how old I am) called for boiling the lentils in beef broth and tossing the salad with tarragon vinegar. It would be a long time before I became confident enough to have the thought Maybe I can use another vinegar besides tarragon? And another broth besides beef? And these days, the lentils are tossed with whatever vinegar I have in the pantry: white balsamic or sherry or red wine or white wine, and simmered in whatever liquid I have on hand. The other big difference? I deploy it as a main dish more than a side dish. All I have to do is add a flaked salmon, a cooked crumbled sausage, or a seven-minute egg, and I have the best kind of dinner: healthy, easy, sentimental.

Warm Lentil Salad
Makes 4 sides or 3 mains

1 1/2 cups brown lentils
2 1/2 – 3 cups liquid (vegetable stock, chicken stock, beef stock, water, or any combination of them) or enough to cover lentils by about an inch
1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts), minced
3 tablespoons chopped bell pepper, any color, I like red (or more to taste)
leaves from 4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or a generous handful finely chopped parsley)
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
little less than 1/4 cup vinegar (I used white balsamic, but you can use tarragon, red wine, regular balsamic)
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

In a medium pot, boil lentils in broth-water combo, then reduce heat and simmer for 12-15 minutes. While lentils are cooking, make your dressing by whisking together mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. When lentils are tender, but still holding their shape (taste a few to determine tenderness) drain in a colander. Toss lentils while warm with scallions, pepper, thyme and vinaigrette.

Protein Add-Ins: Two links cooked, crumbled sweet Italian sausages or a 3/4-pound salmon filet (baked at 400°F for 12-15 minutes), flaked; fried eggs or 7-minute eggs drizzled with chili oil.

P.S. Start with spicy chicken pieces and five things to do with a chicken cutlet.