The poor old lentil has copped a bad rap over the last few decades, with plenty of westerners believing this marvelous protein-packed leguminous powerhouse to be somewhat stodgy and as sensei might have said, vegetarian brown gack. This could quite possibly be due to Neil, and his student share house cohorts from The Young Ones. Neil was infamous for dishing up piles of sludgy brown goo that was possibly once lentils.
There is no need for this amazing little pulse to be so lowly regarded - millions of people around the world sustain themselves admirably on complex protein partnerships of rice, lentils and vegetables. We are luckier; we need not only sustain ourselves, but can dine on the numerous wonderful dishes that lentils have become famous for. Witness the incomparable dhal, mainstay of millions of sub-continental people on a daily basis. And then there is the puy lentil - tiny green and slate coloured legumes that are like none other in the lentil family.
Lentils (Lens culinaris) are quite possibly the oldest of cultivated legumes - with evidence dating back to 7000 BC, contemporaneous with wheat and barley. They are native to areas of Southwest Asia, with most indicators suggesting Syria, but are now consumed in cuisines across the planet. Lentils have an intriguing shape, regardless of variety. They are perfectly lens shaped, the main lens of a telescope looks just like a giant, see-through lentil. In fact, the Latin name for lentils gave us the word for this ocular aid - lens, sometime in the 17th Century.
The volcanic soil of the Velay region in central France is the precursor to the amazing Puy lentil. They get their name form the capital of the area, Le Puy-en-Velay. The first difference of this variety compared to others is evident as soon as you open the packet. Most people are used to lentils arriving brown, yellow or orange in colour - yet these are an alarmingly deep green, with a slate grey mottling on the exterior. Also of note is their size - they are tiny, around 1/3 the size of a large brown lentil.
Not only are Puy lentils visually different, they are cooked in a totally different manner as well. These lentils were not grown to be turned into soups, purees or curries. They cook quickly and are amazingly resilient as well - holding their shape perfectly once cooked. They are much more suited to highly seasoned lentil salads (don't gasp - they are MUCH better than they sound) and warm, nutty and flavoursome accompaniments to rich meat dishes, such as confit of duck. When cooked to perfection they are wonderfully textured and at the same time remain separate - much like the theory behind a good risotto.
Like all premium products, Puy lentils don't come cheap. To my knowledge, no-one abroad has yet been successful in cultivating them in any quantity, so Puy lentils need to be imported from Le Puy, France. You will need to visit a good delicatessen, providore or food broker to get your hands on these babies, as they are still a bit of a "luxury" item. If you have trouble finding them, try to find a premium Italian variety - most notably the lenticchie di Castelluccio from Umbria, or lentils from Alta Mura in Puglia.
The following dish has many things going for it; it is really easy to prepare, it has loads of flavour, it can partner a huge range of dishes - meat, fish or poutry, it can form the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal and it is also big time healthy! It is also a great dish to learn because it gives you a whole scope of variations, so many of the ingredients are interchangeable. It is what the great French chefs of yore would have called a Master dish. This means one simple technique can be applied with many different ingredients, making the various permutations almost limitless.
Lentils du Puy with carrots, shallots and thyme
1 pack Puy lentils (around 500 gm or 1 lb)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, otherwise known as baking soda
2 Tbs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled
4 shallots (eschallots) or 1 small onion, peeled
2 stalks celery, tops removed and washed
1 red capsicum (bell pepper), core and seeds removed
125 gm (1/4 lb) green beans
80 ml (1/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil
30 ml (1 fl oz) good vinegar - red wine, sherry or balsamic
12 stalks thyme, leaves removed
Freshly ground black pepper
Firstly, you need to prepare the vegetables. They need to be cut into little dice so that they all cook evenly, but are not soft and mushy once added to the lentils. Start with the beans so that you can use them as a size guide. Cut the beans into small rounds that are as long as they are thick - roughly spherical in shape. Cut the remaining vegetable into roughly the same size as the beans. You may want to look at my writeup brunoise, which has some advice on the knife work and technique involved.
Once the vegetables have been prepared, bring a large pot of water to the boil, but don't add salt. Saline water makes most legumes, including lentils unpleasantly tough. Once the water is boiling add the bicarb. This alkaline substance will fizz up the water briefly, but more importantly will trap the fabulous green colour of the lentils that would otherwise leach out into the water. Add the lentils, stir well and turn the heat to a simmer.
Heat a large heavy-based fry pan or skillet to a medium temperature. Add the 2 Tbs of olive oil, and follow with the garlic. Cook for 1 minute, and then add all the vegetables. Cook gently, stirring occasionally for about 5 or 6 minutes, and then add the thyme. You want the vegetables to be soft, yet retain some integrity. Remove from the heat.
After 15 minutes, check the lentils. They should hold their shape and be firm to the bite, but still soft enough to eat. You will know if they are undercooked because they will be slightly crunchy and unpleasant. Once cooked (usually around 20 minutes) drain the lentils into a large colander and immediately place under cold running water to stop them cooking.
Drain the lentils again and place in a large bowl. Add the vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Stir well to combine and let the oil give each lentil a nice glossy appearance. Serve as is, at room temperature as a salad, or warm them gently to serve with rich meat or fish dishes.