Thursday, July 8, 2010

Citrus and fennel lentil salad

Some people don't think of lentils as a very summery food.  After all, lentil soup is often their main purpose (or if you are Indian and vegetarian, everything is their main purpose, but that's not what I mean).  But lentils can make a nice salad when paired with the right vinaigrette.  However, you should probably use green because in my experience brown lentils just taste... blah.  No matter what you do to them they are just bland.  Green lentils tend to absorb flavor a little better, so I like to cook up a cup with garlic, shallots and bay leaf to give them a nice flavor and then use them in a variety of things.  Even summer things.

Truthfully, to make this a totally summery salad, one should probably use fresh fennel.  I used dried, ground fennel because i figured it would be a great chance to dig into my spice drawer of rarely used spices and I didn't want to buy the fresh stuff.  But the fresh stuff would definitely look nicer.

So this salad (and I should have taken a picture, but now it's half gone and no longer pretty) consists of 3-4 parts: lettuce, veggie "salsa", lentils and dressing.  You could really use any veggies you have on hand, but I like to use onions, peppers and tomatoes in everything.  They are my go to veggies.  And being in Georgia, in summer, vidalias are all over the place, but red onion would be great in this too.

As for the dressing, this is where I get to (I think for the second time) remind you how to make a good vinaigrette.  The key is emulsifying, usually done by adding an emulsifier: mustard, honey, eggs, I think buttermilk also works as an emulsifier, but that's obviously the opposite of a vinaigrette, but it explains why mustard or buttermilk or something along these lines appears in almost dressing.  And then of course, blending.  Putting everything in a jar and shaking is not enough to make a good vinagrette.  And there is something about adding the oil at the end from a height of like 6 inches or something.  I should check that out and get back to you and give you good advice.  But my favorite emulsifier is honey.  And it's usually the only one I have on hand (well, I have eggs, but I'm scared to put raw eggs in salad dressing, but that's what they all seem to do.

I've been watching Top Chef lately, so please excuse the overly detailed "flavor profile" I'm going to include.  Overall, it tastes fresh, like summer.  That's the point.  The citrus and cilantro hit you up front (and that is in my opinion, unless you are eating burgers or corn on the cob, the quintessential summer taste) and then the aftertaste is refreshing fennel.  Mint would also work, I think.  The lentils add texture and protein, but don't really affect the taste.

I'm trying a layout that very much works with my cooking process.  Make each component at once.  So make sure you read the whole thing if you are interested in recreating this.  I guess one of the components is as much romaine lettuce as you want to use, that doesn't really require much thought.

Citrus and Fennel Lentil Salad
Serves 2-3
1/2 c green lentils
1 c water
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
salt, to taste

Put everything in a saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until all the water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.  Note, I used slightly less water because I like my lentils a little firmer, I'm not a fan of when they turn to mush, and I always worry that if I add too much water they will.

Set aside.   I like it best if they are a little warm on top of the salad.

Veggie Salsa
I call this a salsa because if you chopped everything a little finer and added a chili, that's what it would be.  Remember, this is where you can use what you have on hand.  The size which you chop the veggies doesn't really matter, if you try to keep them consistent
1 medium tomato roughly chopped
1 medium vidalia onion (or red onion), roughly chopped
1 green pepper, roughly chopped
1/4 c cilantro.  But remember, I REALLY like cilantro.  Feel free to back off
Pinch of orange zest (optional, but very nice)

Fennel dressing
Juice of one lemon (lime would likely work)
1/4 tsp ground fennel (fresh of course would be better and then you could garnish it with that too)
Pinch of marjoram (for some reason I think of marjoram as being a good supporter of fennel)
Freshly ground salt and pepper
1/4-c olive oil, those who like the taste of extra virgin should use that
1/2 tsp-1 tsp honey

Combine lemon juice, fennel, marjoram salt and pepper in a blender.  Pour oil while mixing (swirling), add honey and blend until homogeneous.

Serve over romaine lettuce, however much you want.  I layered the veggie salsa on the lettuce, then the warm lentils and poured the dressing on top.  I ate it with grapes, and thought that went well, very summery.

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