This week's recipe is inspired by my brother-in-law's mother, Jacqueline Curvat. When I lived in France, Jacqueline and her husband Andre were kind enough to host me for a month. They were such generous and thoughtful hosts that I felt right at home. Since they don't speak English, my French improved rapidly while I was there. (At times, miming, smiles and pictures filled in the gaps).
Jacqueline is a gracious and elegant host. She makes entertaining seem effortless and she's a fabulous, natural cook. While I enjoyed so many of her beautiful creations--squash souffle, smoked salmon blinis and so much more--the one I loved most is her French lentil salad.
Since returning to the states, I've made the dish countless times (my husband requests it often). I never got an exact recipe, only the ingredients and general instructions. And over the years, I've improvised and transformed the dish. I now add fennel bulb to mine (I got beautiful ones in my farm share) and dust it with fennel pollen (from my dear friend and foodie Sylvia) when serving. And I add fresh rosemary and thyme to the lentils while they're cooking, infusing them with their flavor.
It's a simple dish but with simple, there's nowhere to hide. The keys to this dish are are not overcooking the lentils and striking the right balance of flavors in the dressing. Do use lentils du Puy if you can find them. If not, any French green lentil will do.
Lentils à la Jacqueline
1 1/4 cups lentils de Puy
1 bay leaf
Sprigs of fresh rosemary
Sprigs of fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1/4 pound slab bacon cut into lardons (can substitute bacon cut into 1/4-inch wide pieces)
1 onion, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Parsley, chopped, for serving
Fennel pollen, for serving, optional
Put the lentils, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme and garlic in a pot and cover with water by several inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are just tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Toward the end of cooking, add some salt to the cooking water. Strain the lentils and remove the garlic, bay leaf and herbs.
Meanwhile, saute the lardons in a large skillet over medium heat until golden and crisp. Remove the lardons and set aside. Remove some of the fat in the pan (reserving for another use--fried eggs anyone?), leaving about 2 tablespoons behind. Saute the onion, fennel and carrots until soft.
Add the lentils to the vegetables in the skillet. Add the lardons back in. Toss the lentils and vegetables with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (You're checking for salt and pepper, of course, but also oil and vinegar.) Serve sprinkled with parsley and dusted with fennel pollen.