Sometimes, all I need is lentils, but it wasn’t always this way.
I first ate lentils in my early 20s and heavily into my experimental-vegetarian phase – experimental in the sense of sampling a whole host of new foods, such as tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk; most of which I found rather challenging until I learnt how to prepare them properly. My first attempts with lentils and other pulses weren’t very successful. As a child I detested the iconic New Zealand meal of Watties Baked Beans, and as an adult, I continued to find the texture of pulses coarse and unappetising. But tiny, fast-cooking, no-need-for-soaking lentils didn’t take long for me to like, and once I had acquired a taste for their subtle flavours and dense, fibrous texture, they quickly became essential.
Lentils are humble and everyday; ancient, earthy and basic. I crave lentils at times, especially when I’ve been busy and not eating well. There comes a point at which I recognise a feeling of being off-kilter – over-tired, over-stimulated – when it’s important to re-adjust, ground and nurture. A lentil-based meal feels (to me) like ingesting pure health.
This salad originates from a recipe in Dish magazine. I have no idea which issue or who authored the recipe, since all that remains is a piece of paper pasted into my recipe scrapbook. In the original, the lentils are du puy, regarded (somewhat oxymoronically) as the caviar of lentils, whereas I generally use the more readily available “French-style” green lentils, grown in Australia and easily obtainable in most supermarkets. Also in the original, the lentil salad itself serves as something of a backdrop to poached Cotechino sausage, which I have never been successful in tracking down. Not that I’ve tried very hard; I made a vegetarian version of this recipe the very first time I attempted it, and it has continued to stand alone as an extremely satisfying dish with no further need of embellishment. It can even stand up to the absence of goat’s cheese, if this is unobtainable or if a vegan version is desired.
Green Lentil and Roasted Beetroot Salad
4 medium beetroot
Olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 Tbsp olive oil
3-4 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups green lentils, du puy if you can get them
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
Handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
1/2 cup lightly toasted almonds
100 grams soft goat’s cheese
First, prepare the beetroot. Preheat oven to 200°C/390°F. Trim the leaves away if your beetroot has them still attached, then scrub them and place in a baking dish. Rub with a small amount of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Cover the dish with foil then roast in the oven until tender – around 45 minutes or longer, depending on the size of your beetroot. Once cool, use a small knife to peel away the skin, then cut into chunks.
While the beetoot is roasting, prepare the other elements of the salad. Wash the lentils, then place them in saucepan along with the garlic (peeled and lightly smashed) and the bay leaf. Cover with cold water to about 1 centimetre above the lentils, and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until tender, which could take anywhere between 15-45 minutes depending on the age of your lentils. The lentils are done when they still hold their shape but can be easily squashed against the roof of your mouth using the pressure of your tongue. Drain away any excess liquid, discard the garlic and bay leaf, and stir the dressing through while the lentils are still warm.
While the lentils and beetroot are cooking, prepare the almonds. I usually toast the almonds in a small pan over a low heat in a few drops of oil, but you can also roast them in the oven in a small dish alongside the beetroot. When the skins begin to split, remove them from the pan or oven, set aside to cool, then roughly chop.
For the dressing, crush the garlic, and whisk together with the olive oil and 3 Tbsp white wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, then taste. Add a fourth Tbsp of vinegar if the dressing seems to need an intensified tang, and adjust the salt, pepper and garlic levels as required. Pour dressing over the warm, drained lentils and set aside until all further elements of the dish are completed.
To assemble, spread the lentils over a large, flat dish. Top with chunks of roasted beetroot, crumbled goat’s cheese, roughly chopped parsley, and finally, with the chopped almonds. This is a robust, filling salad, easily a meal on its own. It is just as good eaten immediately as it is consumed from a container the following day at work. The quantities given should feed four people, or one woman for dinner, lunch, dinner, lunch (until she feels restored).