At once primeval and utterly quotidian, lentils are a key ingredient of some of the world's oldest cuisines. Archaeologists have dated cultivation to the paleolithic age, while the Bible, Aristophanes and Apicius all feature the consumption of lentil stews and potages. Today, in the form of the Indian dal, and the lentil and rice dishes (including mjadarrah and koshari) ubiquitous across the Middle East, they remain a staple source of (cheap, local) protein to tens of millions daily.
For the (voluntary) vegetarians of the West, lentils occupy a similarly central role. Yet try as I did over 15+ years in their camp, I was never able to embrace this homely legume. Sludgy in colour, mushy in texture, often doused in copious quantities of harsh curry powders, lentils came to symbolise everything that was boring and abstemious about generically ethnic vegetarian fare. To be fair, the problem was something like that which I encountered with tofu. In the skillful hands of a Chinese or Thai cook, tofu was tasty, sometimes even moreish. In my own, it was bland, bereft of texture and generally to be avoided. Likewise, while the lentils served at curry houses or in the mezze dishes of a Lebanese restaurant did more than just fill the stomach, none of my own efforts in these genres merited repetition.
It was only after I began to eat meat again that I finally found a lentil that commanded respect. The Puy lentil, cultivated under AOC protection in the Auvergne region of France, possesses a delicate, earthy taste and, crucially, retains its shape when cooked. As I recall, lentilles du Puy had a particular following amongst restaurant chefs in the late 1990s, who used them as a garnish for roast fish and meat. They are most often paired with Mediterranean herbs--notably thyme and mint--garlic and pancetta (or another form of smoked pork) and simmered until soft. Loosened up with stock, puy lentils make a hearty soup; served at room temperature, they form an excellent salad, particularly when garnished with goat's or blue cheese.
At first, in a concession to my boyfriend's ambivalent attitudes towards non-animal protein, I cooked my lentils in a soupy, salty bath of pancetta, carrots, onion and thyme. The following summer I found a fantastic lentil salad recipe from Nigel Slater, calling for ample quantities of feta, red onion and mint. But by far the best--and most popular--has been a simplified version of a bulgur and lentil salad which I found in the Gourmet cookbook. My variation has eliminated the bulgur altogether, along with the shallots, carrots and celery. I've retained the toasted walnuts and fresh tarragon, upping the quantities of both and adding a final spark of acidity with lemon juice. The result is, at least to my mind, earthy, sprightly and satisfying. Humble fare it may be, but some days, you don't need anything more than that.
Puy Lentils with Tarragon and Walnuts
3/4 cup lentils
1 large handful of shelled walnuts (I'd describe my hand as relatively small; adjust accordingly)
1 slightly smaller handful fresh tarragon
1 slug (probably a good teaspoon) white wine or white wine tarragon vinegar
juice 1/2 lemon
1-2 slugs olive oil
salt and pepper
Place the lentils in a heavy-bottomed pot, cover with enough water to leave about 1 inch on top and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook, adding water if necessary, until lentils are tender but not falling apart. This should take 30-45 minutes. In the meantime, toast the walnuts either in a dry pan or a medium oven (10-15 minutes should suffice). When cool, break into coarse pieces. Roughly chop the tarragon. When the lentils are finished cooking, allow to cool slightly then mix in the walnuts and tarragon (this will wilt in the heat; no matter). Lubricate with a bit of oil, then adjust the acidity with the vinegar and lemon juice. Season to taste and serve.
Eat warm or at room temperature. Though I've never had leftovers, I'd imagine they would taste quite good as well.