French Lentil Salad

The winter rut has been hitting hard over the last few weeks. You can eat only so much kale, roast, and potatoes before you start longing for plums, or a peach, or a tomato. But good luck finding plums or peaches that aren’t tasteless balls of concrete or a tomato that has more flavor than the box it came in.

Last Saturday, then, I found myself roaming the aisles of Whole Foods for novel fare, carefully adding up each item as I placed it in my basket, trying desperately not to exceed our miserly monthly food budget with the purchase of a fillet of fish or a single Meyer lemon.

In the spirit of cash-strapped shoppers everywhere, I trotted over to the rice and beans in the bulk aisle. There, after buying some arborio rice at $2.49 a pound, I found these lovely little French lentils (also $2.49 a pound). Feeling wildly indulgent, I poured two pounds of each item into an ecologically disastrous plastic bag (happily noting the irony that I’d brought a canvas bag to carry home my groceries).

These French lentils were a joy to prepare and eat. Not only do they look like tiny pebbles, but they also hold their shape nicely when cooked–making them ideal for salads when other lentils can be easily overcooked and fall apart (much like I did when I realized that I’d managed to blow ten bucks on rice and beans). They also have a nuttier flavor than other lentils, so they require very little seasoning to add a little culinary spark to a dish.

I cooked two cups to start, pulled out a cup or so partway through the process to make a salad and letting the rest simmer a little longer to soften them for a soup. The salad turned out to be the perfect winter meal–hearty enough to satisfy on a cold day but offering a welcome hint of summer.

French Lentil Salad

Note: Adjust amounts as needed to suit your taste; I feel silly offering a recipe for salad in the first place. These portions will serve 2 as a meal.

1 cup French lentils
3 cups water, and more as needed
4 mushrooms, sliced
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Sort and rinse lentils. In a medium saucepan, bring lentils, about 1 tsp. salt, and water to boil. Reduce heat. Cover and cook 20 – 25 minutes, until lentils just become soft. Drain lentils and rinse in cold water for a few seconds, until they are warm but no longer hot. Allow lentils to continue draining while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Toss spinach, olive oil, and kosher salt to taste in a large bowl. Slice mushrooms and add to salad, then lentils. Place in serving bowls and top with more salt, if desired, and fresh ground black pepper.

Best Bread in the World on a Snowy Weekend

Go ahead and mock us Southerners for shutting down over the 6 or so inches of snow that fell here on Saturday. We’re happy to take a sabbath, close up, hunker down, tuck ourselves in and enjoy a pleasant winter day snugged up in our house, baking, reading, and napping.

Cleo, never satisfied just to stay safe in a warm house, mewed so desperately to get out on Saturday that I decided to let her venture forth.

Obviously, she didn’t get far.

And anyway, I don’t understand why anyone would have wanted to leave the house this weekend. I baked like crazy, including this loaf of bread.

The recipe claims that this is the “best bread in the world.” That depends on what you like in a bread, of course. If you like a crusty loaf this one won’t satisfy, but its soft and tender crust makes it perfect for sandwiches. I find its sweet and nutty flavor very appealing.

The recipe is quite forgiving in the portion of wheat to white flour. In fact, I accidentally reversed the portion of white and wheat flour in the original recipe, and I like the change so much I kept it here. 

Best Bread in the World 

Makes 2 loaves

2 cups boiling water
1 cup uncooked oatmeal
1/3 cup lukewarm water
2 tbsp. yeast
1 tbsp. salt
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp. butter
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
1 egg yolk plus 1 tsp. water

Pour boiling water over oats in large bowl. Add salt, honey, and butter, and stir. Let stand until softened, butter has melted, and mixture is lukewarm.

Stir yeast into lukewarm water and let it dissolve. (I usually give it a stir until the lumps are gone.) Add to oat mixture. Gradually add flour, stirring with wooden spoon, until a soft ball of dough forms. It should stay together easily when you gather it together with your hands.

Generously flour kneading surface with white flour. I like to use a non-fuzzy cotton towel, like the ones made from flour sacks. Knead dough until smooth and elastic. The instructions say to do this for 10 minutes but it never seems to take me this long. Dough will be ready when it doesn’t “fold” over easily during the kneading process and it springs back in your hands. Don’t clean kneading surface unless required for another task–you will use it one more time.

Oil a large bowl and add dough, turning it to coat with oil on all sides. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Oil 2 loaf pans. Punch down dough and divide in two. Knead each half briefly and shape into loaves. (You can clean your kneading surface now!) Place loafs in pans. Cover and let rise until pans are full. Preheat oven to 350.

Beat egg yolk lightly with the teaspoon of water. Brush surface of each loaf with egg mixture. Bake 35 or 40 minutes.

Turn loaves onto rack and let cool slightly, if you can resist, before slicing. Loaves will freeze well.