I first read about lentilles du Puy at David Lebovitz's blog, several years ago. He called them the 'caviar of lentils' and explained that these French green lentils are specifically grown in volcanic soil without fertilization, giving them a flavorful, mineral-rich quality that is lacking in regular lentils. Sounded good to me except that I couldn't find them in any local stores and couldn't see for myself what the fuss was about. Over time, I heard others extoll the virtues of Puy lentils, but without a source, they stayed off my radar. It seemed silly to order lentils on the internet. Sure, they sound nice, but a lentil is a lentil, yes? Except... no.
Recently, a British friend asked me if I needed anything from her corner of the world and out of the blue, lentilles du Puy popped into my head. I asked if they were available near her and sure enough, they were common and available in two forms: dry and precooked. She mailed me some of both and now, now I really get it. They are wonderful and completely unlike the mushy, lackluster lentil of my mother's soups. Peppery, substantial, they hold their shape and hold their own. These are lentils with a purpose in life. These are the kind of lentils you can really base a meal around.
Last night, I was looking for something warm, nourishing and wintery to cook that didn't have to braise or simmer for a long time. Puy lentils with sautéed vegetables was the perfect thing. Using the tiny white turnips I got Tuesday at the Hollygrove Market and Farm, a few carrots, a yellow squash and a bit of red cabbage, I improvised a meal.
The lentil package instructions directed me to rinse and drain the lentils (I used one cup), put them in a saucepan covered by twice their volume of water, bring to a boil and then simmer for 15-20 minutes until al dente. Then, drain and serve. It also suggested replacing the water with vegetable stock, wine or a half and half solution for extra flavor. I chose to go that route, using a half carton of vegetable stock and some left over sauvignon blanc. I set those to simmer and then began work on the vegetables.
Using a large skillet, I first sautéed two chopped shallots and a clove of minced garlic in olive oil until soft and fragrant. Next, I added the quartered baby turnips, figuring that they would take the most time to cook. When they were beginning to soften and caramelize, I added the carrots and let them do the same. When both were nearly done, I added yellow squash to the pan and let them all get golden. I also salted the vegetables lightly at this point.
I debated adding the cabbage to the same mix, but decided, at the last minute, to cook it separately so that I could add a bit of red wine vinegar and let it braise quickly before bringing all of the vegetables together in the end. I removed the cooked vegetables from the pan and let just the cabbage, a bit of salt and a sprinkle of red wine vinegar meld together.
It only took about 30 seconds for the vinegar to absorb and the cabbage to begin to soften at which point I added the rest of the vegetables back to the pan. I don't know if this was a necessary step, really.
The vegetables and lentils finished at about the same time. I drained the lentils, returning them to the hot pan, and drizzled them with a bit of nice olive oil. Then I plated the lentils and vegetables together, sprinkled with sea salt and a splash of balsamic vinegar and that was that. I probably would have done just as well to dump the lentils into the pan with the vegetables and let them pick up some of the oil and flavor from the pan.
And there it is! A simple, delicious and quick meal for a chilly night.
Now... if anyone can tell me where to get Puy lentils in New Orleans, I would be very thankful.