Tuesday, February 28, 2012


For once, I won’t be starting a post about lentils by talking about how I don’t really like them, because I wholeheartedly loved these. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever really eaten lentils outside of soup, and maybe the lentil-y flavor is less strong when the cooking water is drained away? Or maybe I’ve been converted to lentil love, the way I’ve slowly been won over by beans. Or maybe it doesn’t matter, because this recipe is just that awesome.

As soon as I spotted it at Dinner With Julie (how, I don’t know, because it’s two years old—I guess it was destiny, leading me through a random series of links?), I knew I had to make it right away. I’m not sure if it was the poached eggs that lured me in (probably; I’ve been craving them lately) or the bacon, but it seemed like just the kind of food I want more of right now: light and healthy and simple, but also warm and hearty and comforting. After years of resistance to main-dish salads, I’ve finally been won over by them, now that I understand that “salad” doesn’t always have to mean “lettuce laden with many toppings,” a la your average TGI- Friday’s-style chain restaurant. I’m not even sure what really makes this a salad and not just an entrée, seeing as it’s warm, has more lentils than greens, and doesn’t have a dressing. But who cares? It tastes wonderful. I ate it three days in a row last week, and I would happily make it again right now if I had the ingredients handy.

Also: WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT POACHED EGG. I’m so proud! I guess the third time’s the charm, because after having limited success with the whirlpool method (requires too much coordination) and the shallow-water-with-canning-ring method (results not fluffy enough), I finally found a nearly foolproof egg-poaching recipe thanks to NPR. It’s a bit fussier, since it involves a fairly deep pot of water, draining the eggs in a mesh strainer for a few minutes to get rid of the thinner whites that otherwise tend to stray, adding vinegar to the water (I know this is controversial because some people claim they can taste the vinegar in the egg, but I couldn’t, and it really does help get the whites more compact), and adding enough salt that the egg bobs to the surface when cooked instead of getting stuck to the bottom of the pot, but it was just the trick I needed to produce the handsome, puffy, perfectly cooked poached eggs of my dreams. It’s not magic, mind you. You still have to exercise the right combination of care and confidence when dropping the eggs into the water, and I have yet to perfect my technique completely. While I turned out two flawless specimens on the first go-round, during each of three subsequent attempts over the course of the week I choked, dropped the egg too fast or too slow or from too great a height, and produced some homelier (but still tasty!) blobs. Luckily, I think practice will eventually make perfect, and I have no aversion to practice if it means I get to eat more lentil salad along the way.

With one egg on top, this salad will make a generous side dish to a modest portion of meat (pork would be nice) or some other entrée, but with two eggs per serving, it makes the perfect main dish for lunch or a light dinner, which is how we ate it. I liked Julie’s adaptation (the original recipe is from dearly departed Gourmet) of mixing the spinach into the lentils to wilt rather than scattering the raw leaves on top (which sounds odd to me), but I think it needs more spinach than just 1 cup. I threw a bit extra into the mix, but since it cooks down so small, I ended up increasing the spinach further—and making the dish more traditionally salad-like—by serving the leftover portions on a bed of raw leaves, which I liked. The more greens the merrier, I always say. I did run out of red wine vinegar after just 1 tablespoon, so I supplemented with balsamic; I worried this would be a weird taste combo, but then I couldn’t taste either vinegar in the finished dish, although I’m sure they added a little something. My only other change was to use thyme instead of tarragon, because I hate tarragon (I think I got this idea from the Epicurious comments). I nearly forgot the thyme entirely, but I’m so glad I didn’t because it really took the flavors up a notch. Oh, and although the original recipe said to saute them for just 5 minutes, I did think my carrots were a tad crunchier than I’d have liked, so I’ll cook them longer next time.

Finally, I just have to give props to the way Julie begins her post about this salad: “Have you ever panicked that there is just so much food and so little time?... THERE IS JUST SO MUCH TO EAT AND ONLY SO MANY DAYS IN A WEEK AND HOURS IN A DAY! AND MONTHS IN A YEAR! EVERY DAY I HAVE TO DECIDE! I’M NOT GOING TO HAVE TIME TO EAT IT ALL! THE MATH JUST DOESN’T ADD UP!” Oh, yes. Constantly. And every time I discover a favorite recipe like this one, that feeling only gets worse. But I suppose it’s a good problem to have, right?

¾ cup dried lentils (I used French green lentils)
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
1–2 cups baby spinach
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
4–8 large eggs

1. In a small saucepan, cover lentils with about twice as much water, bring to a simmer, and cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until just tender. (You can do this ahead of time and keep them in the fridge until you’re ready for them.)

2. While the lentils are simmering, cook the bacon until crisp in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat; transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate, leaving the drippings in the skillet. Add the leeks, celery, and carrot and cook, stirring often, for about 5–10 minutes or until tender. Add vinegar and cook until it’s mostly evaporated. Drain the lentils well and add them to the skillet along with the spinach and thyme; cook, stirring, until heated through and the spinach wilts. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the bacon.

3. Meanwhile, poach your eggs. Divide the warm lentil salad among 4 plates and top each with one or two eggs.

Serves: 4
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Good for the salad, but don’t try to keep the poached eggs; just poach enough for whatever you’re going to eat right away, then poach more right before reheating the leftovers.

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