What f I told you that there was a caviar you can buy for around 3 bucks per pound?
You might say, “David, you’re crazy!”
Well call me fou…(which wouldn’t be the first time) but lentilles du Puy, the French green lentils from the Auvergne, are not called ‘the caviar of lentils’ for nothing.
I’m sure many of your out there might lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking, “Gee, I wonder if David’s right and there really is a different between ordinary green French lentils and lentilles du Puy?”
I will save you a sleepless night and say, “Yes!”…there is.
Lentils from Puy are indeed the most fantastic lentils in the world and I’m one of their biggest fans. I didn’t think it was possible to get so excited about a grain (well, they’re actually a ‘pulse’, but that sounds funny) until I tried them. 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. Consequently lentilles du Puy have less starch than other green lentils, so they don’t get all mushy and muddy when cooked like those hippy-dippy soups people used to make.
So how does one know if they have real lentilles du Puy as opposed just ordinary French green lentils?
It’s simple; look for the AOC seal on the package, which certifies they’re truly lentilles du Puy, and not tiny, disk-shaped, vastly-inferior impostors. And they will say du Puy too. And don’t be tempted to buy the less-expensive, ordinary French green lentils which cost about a third of the price. Believe me, there’s no comparison.
Been there, done ‘em.
I always keep a bag of lentils from Puy in my pantry since they can be prepared really quickly and they’re a great side dish, equally good served warm or at room temperature. They make a great accompaniment to everything from grilled fish to roast pork, or even a vegetarian dinner alongside baked butternut squash or pile of caramelized roasted root vegetables like parsnips, celery root, and carrots.
But I often prepare this lentil salad as a meal in itself by mixing in chunks of fresh, crumbly goat cheese along with a handful of toasted hazelnuts, then finishing it with a fragrant drizzle of extraordinarily good toasted hazelnut oil.
Salad of Lentilles du Puy
About 6 servings
I like this lentil salad best when the diced carrots, onions and fennel are sautéed in olive oil until just-tender, then mixed into the warm lentils along with the vinaigrette. The fennel isn’t necessary (well, neither are shoes) but it’s quite nice if you like it. You can also simmer the vegetables along with the lentils if you want to save a step but be sure to add them to the vinaigrette while warm, which helps them absorb the dressing.
Be sure to use very good olive oil for the vinaigrette: yes, it does make a difference! No cheating. I use Spanish arbequina oil that’s fruity and really quite delicious. Since les lentilles du Puy lend themselves to so many variations, I’ve included a few at then end of the recipe to encourage improvisation.
For the lentils:
- 1¼ cup (250 gr) French green lentilles du Puy
- 1 bay leaf
- a few springs of fresh thyme
- 1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
- 1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
- 1 bulb of fennel (optional), finely diced
- freshly-ground pepper
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon red wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
1. Rinse the lentils and remove any foreign matter.
2. Transfer the lentils to a large saucepan then cover with a copious amount of water, which should cover the lentils by at least 3-4 inches. Add the bay leaf and thyme.
3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, add a bit of salt, and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the lentils are just tender, adding more water if necessary. Be sure not to overcook them.
4. While the lentils are cooking, heat a few spoonfuls of olive oil in a skillet and add the carrots, onions, and fennel (if using). Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently until tender. Set aside.
5. In a large bowl, mix together the ingredients for the vinaigrette.
6. When the lentils are done, drain them well, then toss them in the vinaigrette with the cooked vegetables. Stir a few times to release the steam. Taste, and season with more salt, pepper, and olive oil if desired. Remove bay leave and thyme sprigs.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Cooked lentils will keep in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. They can be reheated in a pan on the stovetop or in a microwave.
Some other ideas:
Dress the lentils with less vinaigrette and omit the mustard. When the lentils are cool, dress them right before serving with a very, very good-quality walnut or hazelnut oil and a handful of toasted nuts.
Once cool, add a big handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley and more fresh thyme or savory.
Add other root vegetables, like celery root or parsnips. Oven roast cubes of them in olive oil with salt and pepper until browned, then add them with the vinaigrette.
Add morsels of cooked, smoky bacon.
Stir a spoonful of duck fat into the warm lentils.
Crumble coarse chunks of fresh goat cheese into the room temperature lightly-dressed lentils. This is particularly good drizzled with walnut or hazelnut oil.
Although they’re available in many specialty shops, my favorite source in Paris for lentilles du Puy (and all grains) is from José Ferré’s shop:
La Graineterie du Marché
8, Place d’Aligre
Tél; 01 43 43 22 64
Open daily, except Monday
For US residents, French green lentils from Puy can also be mail ordered here or in specialty shops.