This tiny beluga lentil is now my most favorite legume.
When I first met the Puy, or French Green Lentil, it was love at first taste. All those pretty little green disks of peppery, firm goodness combined with a bit of very finely diced carrot, celery, some thyme and tossed a light vinaigrette. Served as a lovely French green lentil salad…absolute heaven on a summer’s day.
Then there was the red lentil. Mellow, sweet and mysterious. They start off red and turn gold and soft when cooked, perfect for making a naturally thickened and richly spiced soup. I love to make curried lentil stew with these babies…filled with some Indian spices and a little tomato. Winter warmth personified in a bowl.
Also good for soups is the more commonly found brown lentil. It holds it shape a bit better when cooked and has a mild, earthy flavor that combines well with other ingredients as a hearty soup or an Indian dal. As a side dish, they’re especially nice seasoned with some spices and caramelized onion and served over plain, brown or nutty wild rice. I’ve had some mighty fine lentil burgers made from brown lentils, too.
And then along came the beluga lentil, crossing my radar and changing everything.
I’d first spotted them in the grocery a few years ago, all nestled in their bin…shiny little black pearls beckoning to me. I had no clue what they tasted like, but they were so pretty, I bought some. Shortly thereafter I attended a party where someone had made a vegan salad with beluga lentils cooked in coconut milk. Very nice, though I couldn’t really taste the lentil per se because of the strong coconut flavor…but it was still an inspiring salad.
Finally, I decided to try my hand at cooking these little guys and set about creating a simple dish that I thought would compliment them. These lentils hold their shape very well, which is nice because they provide great texture and color contrast in a dish. Their flavor is perhaps the earthiest of all lentils, and so they begged for some earthy spices to enhance that flavor. I chose cumin and coriander as the base of my flavor profile, added some shallot for depth, some celery and carrot… because lentils love that, and some good quality chicken stock to cook them in. Once cooked and while warm, I stirred through a little sherry vinegar, some baby spinach (more earth) and salt and pepper to taste, then soft fried/oil poached an egg and laid it over the top of a mound of the salad. Dinner was served.
And what a fine and complete meal it was! (And yes, healthy, too.) The warm spices combined perfectly with the lentils, which are firm on the outside and creamy on the inside. Spinach added some good crunchy texture to give the dish its “salad” mouthfeel, and the sherry vinegar brought out the depth of flavor in the whole with an undertone of acidity. When you cut through the egg, the soft yolk runs into the salad and adds to the mix with a rich and silky hit of goodness. You could poach your egg if you like—I like the oil fried/poached method because the tiny bit of additional olive oil adds to the whole of the dish—or you could hard-fry your egg if you don’t like runny yolks and it would still be good…the choice is yours.
The first time I made this, I knew there would be a next time. And so a few weeks later when we had a little warm spell, I purchased some salmon filets on sale and we grilled them to place atop the lentils…a classic. I lightly seasoned the salmon with salt and pepper and dusted it even more lightly with just a hint of cumin and coriander to bind it to the salad. Magnificent.
Now I must say that while beluga lentils have become my quick favorite, I know they aren’t available everywhere, so don’t let that keep you from trying this recipe with a brown lentil substituted—just make sure you do check the cooking times for the larger lentil. And if you are a vegetarian or vegan, this base salad recipe stands alone, and would work well made with vegetable stock. We definitely enjoyed it as a lunch salad all by itself.
If you haven’t tried lentils, and particularly beluga lentils, you really should give them a go. In addition to being a high source of protein, low in fat and a good source of fiber, they contain many essential elements our bodies need such as folate, iron, potassium and phosphorus. They’re also an inexpensive and healthy alternative to animal protein when eaten as a vegetarian or vegan option. But the best reason of all to try them? They’re delicious! Happy eating.
Spiced Beluga Lentil and Spinach Salad
Makes 6-8 servings
3/4 cup minced shallot (about 2 large)
3 small carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 cup finely diced celery (about 2-3 stalks)
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups dried beluga (black) lentils, picked over for stones, rinsed in a fine meshed sieve
4 cups good quality low sodium chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 Tablespoons sherry vinegar
3 oz. baby spinach
More salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the shallots, carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables until the shallots are translucent and the carrots and celery have softened, about 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper and stir for one minute to cook the spices, then add the lentils and stir to mix and coat well with the veggies, spices and oil. Add the 4 cups of stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer and partially cover. Cook until the lentils are just tender and the broth has been absorbed, about 25 minutes. Remove the lentils from the heat and place into a large mixing bowl. Allow the lentils to cool for about 5 minutes, then add the spinach to the warm lentils and stir through. Add the sherry vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Serve the salad alone as Version 1.0 for a meatless and eggless (and vegan if you used vegetable stock) meal.
For Version 2.0, soft fry/poach eggs in oil with this procedure to serve 2, and add more oil and eggs proportionately for more servings:
Place a scant 1 tablespoon of olive oil into an appropriate sized skillet large enough to house two eggs. Heat the oil over medium low heat, then carefully crack your two eggs into the oil. Keep the eggs close to the skillet when cracking them and try to drop them slowly, they will spread less this way. Add about 1 teaspoon of water (for two eggs) to the skillet in between the eggs, being careful not to splatter yourself with hot oil, then immediately cover the skillet and cook the eggs for 2-3 minutes, checking for doneness. The water will create steam to soft poach the top of the egg while the olive oil fries the white. Continue cooking, watching carefully, until the white is fully set and the yolk is just beginning to set but is still runny inside (or to your liking), then remove the eggs one at a time and place on top of a serving of the warm, room temperature or cooled lentil salad. Sprinkle with a tiny amount of kosher salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Enjoy.
For Version 3.0, grill two 6 oz. skin-on salmon filets to serve 2, and add more salmon and proportionate ingredients to serve more folks, following the procedure below.
Prepare your barbecue grill or grill pan. Prep the salmon by drizzling about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil per filet and rubbing it all over. Then dust the flesh side of the two filets with 1/8 teaspoon of cumin and coriander, divided, and a tiny sprinkle of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. If using an outdoor grill, place the salmon filets on a square of heavy duty aluminum foil and proceed. Grill your salmon skin side down over medium high heat, covering the grill if outdoors and checking it every 3-5 minutes, until the salmon is just done through and still barely showing signs of uncooked at the thickest, most central part. Remove the salmon from the heat and allow it to rest for 3 minutes, covered (the salmon will finish cooking through), then place it on top of a serving of the warm, room temperature, or cooled lentil salad. You can garnish with a few slivered baby spinach leaves for color if you like. Enjoy.
The girls vote for the salmon version of this dish…but we liked them all equally!
Footnote: (Because this post just wasn’t long enough!) Here’s a 4.0 way to enjoy this salad. Place a healthy portion of leftover salad inside a tortilla wrap, sprinkle with a little cheese or, even better, some pimento cheese and some salsa verde, and add a little more raw spinach if you like. Wrap it up burrito style and you have a wonderful sandwich!