Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lentil Salad: The First Time

I'll never forget it.  

It was the summer of 1996 and I was attending orientation for incoming freshmen at University of Michigan.  It was great to be away from home (even if just 45 minutes away) and to find myself staring over the precipice of a new, exciting journey with so many new faces to meet and experiences to learn from was...breathtaking.  After the first time, I couldn't wait for the next opportunity.  I would lie awake on the top bunk of the stuffy dorm room, unable to stop thinking about it.  I was mildly infatuated, which for the teenager I was probably read as overzealous obsession.  Trying to force myself to stop thinking about it had the exact opposite effect.  I wondered if others felt the same way I did about it...

[sigh]...  Lentil salad.

I had you going there for a bit, didn't I?  I've often laughed about this to myself - the first time I ever fell in love...with lentils. Perhaps it was the combination of starting college, getting a fresh start, the humid, sticky summers in Michigan, and the buzzing anticipation of all the new students from all over the world.  But I will truly never forget that first day on campus when we were set loose in the cafeteria of East Quad for lunch. 

It was set up buffet style, with a salad station to the left, warm plates on the right, sandwiches in the opposite corner, and desserts devilishly placed right in the middle.  As you've probably gathered from previous posts, eating is something I enjoy, especially social eating.  But there is a difference between family style for humans and family style for sharks.  So rather than compete in the mad dash of trays and flashing silverware, I just walked around, seeing what was available that day and biding my time until most people had already found their seats.

To start, I filled my plate with different cold things: peaches and cottage cheese, fruit salad, pasta salad, and a strange rice and lentil combination.  I normally wouldn't have tried it, but since it was all-you-can-eat (which can translate to all-you-can-waste) and college was all about new experiences, I decided to broaden my horizons a bit.

Broaden was an understatement.  Textures and flavors resonated in counterpoint.  Soft, fluffy rice, the tang of lemon, the cooling finish of parsley and mint, crisp cucumbers and bell peppers, the silkiness of olive oil, and the earthiness of lentils that were just al dente. That is how clearly that experience remains in my memory.  It completely transported me and was honestly one of those moments that made me excited.  About college, of course, but more importantly, about embarking on a new chapter and moving forward.  About living, period.

So for today's recipe, I present my interpretation of that momentous lentil salad.

Vegan Quinoa Lentil Salad (GF, DF, V, rSF, SF)

1 1/2 c cooked quinoa
1/2 c cooked french green lentils
1/4 c diced sweet onion/shallot
1/2 c diced cucumber                              
1/2 c diced tomato                              
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons each of basil, cilantro, mint 
3 tablespoons evoo
1-2 tablespoons cooking liquid from lentils      
4-5 teaspoons fresh lemon juice                     
1/2 teaspoon white pepper                                
salt to taste

1a.  Begin by cooking the quinoa.  The conversion ratio of uncooked to cooked quinoa is 1:3, so for this recipe you will need just a 1/2 cup of uncooked quinoa.  However, from experience I've found that grains tend to cook more consistently in larger quantities, so I'd recommend cooking at least 1 cup of dry quinoa.
1b.  Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and transfer to rice cooker/saucepan.  The ratio of uncooked quinoa to cooking liquid is generally 1:2 (e.g., 1 cup uncooked quinoa requires 2 cups liquid).  If you happen to be using either red or black quinoa, another 1/8 or 1/4 cup may be needed.  1 cup of quinoa should cook in 12-18 minutes.
2a.  To obtain 1/2 cup of cooked lentils you will need just a 1/4 cup of dry lentils.  I prefer to use french green lentils because of how well they hold their shape, but brown or black lentils may be substituted.  I chose to soak mine overnight to make both cooking and digesting the lentils easier.
2b.  Rinse the lentils and transfer to a small saucepan with the 1 cup of warm stock.  Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce to a simmer, uncovered.  You may need to skim the surface occasionally to remove any "foam" that may accumulate.  General cooking time can range from 20-45 minutes for lentils, so check periodically to prevent overcooking.
2c.  Drain lentils, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and allow them to cool.
3.  Seed and dice the cucumber and tomatoes.
4.  Dice the onion/shallot.  If the flavor of your onion is on the aggressive side, you can rinse or soak the onion in cold water to remove some of the "bite."
5.  Finely mince the garlic.
6.  Finely mince the herbs.  2 sprigs each of mint and cilantro and 1 sprig of basil should approximate 1 teaspoon each.
7.  Combine vegetables, herbs, and lentils in a non-reactive mixing bowl.  Add lemon juice, two tablespoons of evoo, and one to two tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid.  Toss to incorporate.
8.  Add quinoa and remaining evoo and toss gently.  Season with salt and white pepper.  Cover and chill, allowing salad to marinate for at least four hours.
9.  Makes 4-6 servings.

Pretty after soaking

No other seeds, please - just the quinoa

Tasty trilogy

This is one of those salads that just keeps getting better, with flavors continuing to mingle seductively with nuanced grace.  I served this at dinner last night, and after getting home late/early from a night out, I had it for a midnight snack.  I had to restrain myself from finishing it all right then and there, it was so good and already so different from when I had it earlier.

This would serve well as a second course or an intermezzo.  The flavors are bright and complex, but they won't hit you over the head.  They make you come to them, priming the palate for what's next.  Cooling, refreshing, and centering - that's how I would describe the experience of this salad.

Quinoa Lentil Salad

I hope the same "counterpoint" of flavors and textures is there for you.  I hope that you smile when you eat it, and I hope that it creates a moment for you, even if it's just to stop, close your eyes, and breathe.

[Sigh]...  You never forget your first time. :)

1 comment:

  1. Lentils are my buddies =) I think for the longest time I would always order Mujadra from any middle eastern restaurant that I went to. =) Sooo gooood....This salad is absolutely wonderful.I think sometimes people are thrown off by the quinoa in the salad. They've never seen a grain like it before in their lives and they are a bit wary. Once they try it I think for most people they immediately say 'ohhhh..mmmm it's good!' Stop reading this comment and make this salad already! I'm hungry =)


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