Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ninety-Degree Days and Wilted Parsley

It’s much too hot outside.

On my fifteen-minute ride back from the grocery store, a third of my parsley wilted. I even pointed the air conditioning right at it, coaxing it to stay green and perky, and you have to be pretty special to get that kind of treatment in my car. But no, the heat persisted, and now it sits in my fridge, half looking all sad and defeated.

You see, in the wonderfully temperate state of Connecticut, Mother Nature sometimes forgets the little seasonal interludes that are spring and fall. Instead, here, the deep freezes of winter and the heat waves of summer tumble right on top of one another. We’ve taken the unofficial leap into summer already, in April, with ninety-degree days and wilted parsley.

But I digress. The reason I had parsley in the first place was to make lentil salad for dinner – something I was first introduced to by the restaurant where I work, the Still River café. They used to serve this as an amuse, back when they had first opened and back when I had no idea what an amuse actually was. I remember dipping asian spoons into big vats of the stuff and bringing it to tables on polished silver trays. The trays would wobble, the lentils would spill out, and I would recite, as I spilled the little legumes all over the table, “This is an amuse bouche of lentil salad, courtesy of the chef. Enjoy.” And if someone asked me what was in the lentil salad, I would stutter awkwardly, and run off to the kitchen in search of the answer. Needless to say, things have drastically improved, in both my waiting skills and my cooking ones.

Apparently, it is very important to use the correct type of lentils when you cook. There is a difference between the ordinary green ones and lentilles de Puy. The former are a paler, more drab-looking and tasting cousin of the latter. Lentilles de Puy have even been described as the caviar of lentils -- there is little explanation needed. Here is a slightly blurry picture of the ones you want to buy:

The salad itself is actually quite simple: there is some sauté action, some simmer action, and some cooling action, and then they’re ready to gobble up. It’s not very photogenic, but it’s entirely delicious; don’t be fooled by the picture. Even though there is quite a bit of olive oil and bacon in the salad, it is deceivingly light and refreshing – earthy, with just enough vinegar and wonderfully French stone ground mustard to make it feel like maybe you’re not sweltering in April, ninety degree heat.

Green Lentil and Bacon Salad
(Adapted from

Disclaimer: This yields a heaping ton of lentil salad, so if you’re like me, and you cook for one, I would highly recommend you halve the recipe so you don’t have to eat lentil salad for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert (although it might not be that bad…).

6 slices thick-cut bacon, coarsely chopped
1 small onion, diced
6 cups water
1 3/4-pound smoked ham hock
1 pound French green lentils, rinsed, drained
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
4 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup walnut oil or olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped celery

Cook bacon in heavy large saucepan over medium heat until brown and crisp. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Add onion to drippings in saucepan; sauté until very tender, about 15 minutes. Add 6 cups water, ham hock, lentils, 1/4 cup parsley, and 2 teaspoons thyme. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Using tongs, transfer ham hock to work surface. Drain lentils. Cool ham hock and lentils. Cut ham from bone; dice. Transfer ham to large bowl.

Whisk walnut oil, red wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard in small bowl to blend. Transfer lentils to large bowl with ham. Add dressing, red onion, celery, bacon, remaining 1/4 cup parsley, and remaining 2 teaspoons thyme. Toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve at room temperature. (I even like it cold, but that’s up to you.)

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