How the French Changed the Way I Think About Lentils
I didn’t grow up cooking alongside my mother, a backwards chair scooched next to the stove, standing watch while she stirred a simmering pot.
Though my mom did most of the cooking, in those days, she was a registered nurse and didn’t have the time to linger over a recipe. It was a standard protein and vegetable, usually from a can.
To quote my mom’s Joy of Cooking cookbook, which she cracked open on special occasions:
Necessity is the mother of invention; and convenience gave birth to the can and the frozen package.
Sometimes we had a stew of leftovers spooned over buttery egg noodles. Occasionally, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
The real treat, to us kids, was when mom brought home Burger King. These were before the days of cell phones, so there were no quick calls from the drive-thru to see what we’d like. It was always a surprise. The moment we’d spot the brown bags in-hand as she walked in from the driveway, likely tired from a 12-hour shift at the hospital, was a happy one. We sprinted to meet her at the door and descend upon those weighty bags of burgers, fries, and, for me, that fried chicken sandwich on a sesame seed bun, mayonnaise bursting from the sides.
Though my two siblings and I didn’t cook, we did prepare ourselves food. One of my specialties was a cheese sandwich on white bread, spread thick with Gulden’s brown mustard, a generous shake of garlic powder to add a gourmet touch.
Mary Alice, my older sister, had her signature snacks, too — a Kraft cheese single folded inside a flour tortilla, microwaved to melty perfection; a spoonful of natural peanut butter.
Our palates may have been refined as a Twinkie, but we knew what we liked.
As we got older, our appetites for good, home-cooked food evolved in tandem, my sister always a couple of steps ahead, meaning I’d copy a dish from her repertoire, having tasted how good it was when she prepared it, and try to make it my own.
Somewhere in between garlic powder cheese sandwiches and today, we started making canned lentils, doctored up with sautéed garlic and finished with a fried or poached egg. To this day, I find it to be a very quick and satisfying dinner.
After years of cooking and very much enjoying the canned variety, I graduated to dried lentils.
Initially, I was intimidated by what I imagined would be a cumbersome process of coaxing them out of their tough little shells. Would there be days of soaking? (Too much forethought!) Would it require a pressure cooker? But once I gave them a chance, I realized that lentils were more forgiving than I imagined.
You can adjust to the tools—or the time—you have on hand. And when you taste the final product, you see: it’s worth the (minimal) extra effort.
Since living in France, I’ve come to see lentils in a new light. The first time I tried their sacred legume wasn’t in a soup or a stew, but, of all things, a salad—a salad tiède, or warm, with spicy arugula, pickled red onions, clouds of fluffy goat cheese, and barely warm dark green lentils. To see them play a supporting role, rather than the lead, was something of a revelation.
And like many humble ingredients in France, there’s a lentil labeled AOC—and we’re not talking about the young Congresswoman from the Bronx.
Here, AOC is short for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée—meant to signify the superiority of a certain product from a certain region, like Corsican honey, rice from Camargue, and butter from Charente. In the world of lentils, the AOC title goes to the lentilles from Le Puy, a commune in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-central France, near the Loire River.
Revered for both their taste and texture, they’re known as the caviar of lentils, if you can believe there is such a thing,
David Lebovitz helps us understand why:
Their unique, nutty flavor is attributed to the volcanic soil they’re grown in, sans fertilizer, which gives them their fine, mineral-rich taste. The climate in the Auvergne also contributes to their unique texture: a lack of humidity and abundant sunshine, courtesy of the surrounding mountains and volcanic deposits, ensures that the lentils dry on the plant all by themselves.
When you cook them, they retain the integrity of their structure—in other words, they don’t turn into a pile of mush.
In my experience, they’re as inexpensive as they are tasty. What’s more, they’re the bag of beans (bah, pulses) that keeps on giving. I might prepare a bag of lentils du Puy and serve them as a main— with the requisite poached egg, herbs if I have them, and a scoop of crème fraîche. (An aside: in France, you can find good crème fraîche for under a euro. That is to say: This truly is a budget meal.)
I’ll freeze the leftovers. In their next iteration, I can incorporate them into a warm salad; or, do as Ina Garten does, and serve them as a side.
“Salmon with lentils is a great party dish because you can make it in huge quantities, but for two it’s also perfect, so I’m going to make it for Michael and me,” Garten says, looking as pleased as a cat who just caught the canary as she pours boiling water from a tea kettle over a bowl of French lentils.
(Spoiler alert: She’s a soaker.)
Recently, I was having a day. The news felt overwhelming. Work wasn’t going my way. I shut the laptop early, looked inside the cabinet, and spotted a Tupperware of dried green lentils.
I ran water over them and set to work, chopping shallots and crushing garlic with the side of my blade.
I simmered the shallots in olive oil, and when they started to shimmer, threw in the garlic and cooked it for just a minute—until my Parisian kitchen was fragrant with the delicious smell of softening, not burning, garlic.
Along the way, I noticed that the act of cooking lentils had calmed me — and I started to wonder why.
Maybe because so many things seem out of my control: I can’t make an agent love my book proposal; I can’t predict what will happen in the upcoming elections; I can’t hug my mom today, or my sister or my brother, or most of my friends — and I can’t say when I‘ll be able to.
But I can control what I do with a bag of lentils.
Maybe that’s overselling it.
One thing’s for sure, I do miss cooking with my sister, exchanging tips in the kitchen, an open bottle of wine somewhere nearby.
We’re far apart — she, Dallas; me, Paris. I’d love to be in the kitchen with her and show her what I can do with a bag of French lentils. Hell, I’d gladly crank open a can and do it the way we used to.
And I’d love to cook something for my mom, who still often works 12-hour days.
For now, I’ll settle for another WhatsApp call and send them this recipe. And we’ll keep coming up with new ways to connect and exchange until we see each other again.
As they say: Necessity is the mother of invention.
French Lentil Salad
Makes: 2 to 4 servings
Time: About 45 minutes
- 1½ cups Lentils du Puy
- Olive oil
- A couple of shallots, chopped
- ½ cup lardons (or coarsely chopped bacon)
- 1 handful parsley, chopped
- 4 handfuls arugula (or your choice of leafy green)
- A mustard-y vinaigrette
- 1 poached egg per person (optional)
- In a large saucepan, cook lentils in unsalted water (lentils to water ratio: 1:3) for 20–25 minutes after water starts boiling; drain excess water.
- In a separate pan, heat olive oil over medium and add shallots; when they start to shimmer, add lardons and cook to your liking (I like ‘em crispy).
- Add lentils, lower heat, and cook together for at least 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, toss greens in your vinaigrette.
- Spoon lentils over greens and top with parsley and a poached egg.
— Adapted from François-Régis Gaudry’s On va deguster La France.