Recipe: Castelluccio Lentils with Leeks Vinaigrette
Lentils always used to be a dreary dish for me. The bowl of lentil soup my sister and I would order because it was the only soup they had at a Midtown coffee shop was a winter tradition of ours when we were teenagers. That soup was, and still would be, mushy, gray, depressing, usually oversalted, and often studded with one choking-stiff bay leaf. It was our reward after a fine afternoon thinking of stealing but winding up paying for lipsticks at Macy’s. What usually saved the lunch was the extra-greasy grilled American cheese sandwich we’d order to share, alongside. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll probably know that I have a real aversion to mushy food. Mush aside, there’s not much flavor going on with run-of-the-mill lentils, unless you order a dish from an Indian place, where many, many spices mask the inelegance that lurks beneath.
But then one day years ago, while strolling the aisles of the old Balducci’s in the Village (boy, do I miss that store), I discovered a bag of lentils from Castelluccio, Italy. I bought them because they looked different, smaller, harder, smoother, multicolored, in shades of beige, light green and tan. They cooked up whole but tender and didn’t give off any sludgy brown film. They were pretty. I was so taken with them that I actually took a trip to that Umbrian village a few years later to watch the tiny things being harvested. (I put up an entire post about this trip a few years back, but for some reason it has temporarily vanished. When I find it I’ll let you know.) You can serve these glossy lentils for a fancy dinner and not feel you’re dishing up a mess of army rations. Castelluccio lentils are very much like the French Le Puy variety, which I discovered about a week later, also at Balducci’s, except that the French ones are dark green. Both are beautiful to cook with.
When I pick up a box of either the Castelluccio or the Le Puy lentils, what I like to do is make a salad, since cooking with lentils that stay intact is such a luxury. Here what I did was give them a brief boil (about 20 minutes) and then mix in a lightly sautéed soffritto before dressing them with a vinaigrette. I draped poached leeks over the top and wound up with what my pork-fat-loving palate found to be a vegetarian delight. (I had to restrain myself from adding pancetta. It would have been a good ingredient I’m sure, but I wanted this to be pure.)
Castelluccio Lentils with Leeks Vinaigrette
(Serves 4 as a main course)
2 cups Castelluccio or Le Puy lentils, picked over
1 fresh bay leaf
A generous pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large carrot, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, plus some extra for garnish
For the vinaigrette:
The juice and grated zest from 1 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
A pinch of sugar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
12 leeks, well trimmed and split down the middle, keeping the stem end intact
A big handful of mixed salad greens
Put the lentils, bay leaf, and sugar in a saucepan. Cover with cool water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat a bit, and cook at a low bubble, uncovered, until the lentils are tender but still holding their shape, about 20 minutes. Drain well, and place them in a bowl. Give them a drizzle of olive oil, and season them with a little salt.
In a small sauté pan, make a quick soffritto by sautéing the carrots, shallot, and celery in olive oil, leaving the vegetables a little crunchy. Add the vegetables to the lentils. Add the ground allspice, black pepper, and thyme . Mix, and let come to room temperature.
While you’re preparing the lentils, soak the leeks in a big pot of cold water, letting all the dirt fall to the bottom. Lift them from the water, making sure they’re very clean. Poach the leeks in boiling salted water until tender, about 20 minutes. Pull them from the pot, and lay them out on paper towels. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Season with a bit of salt.
When ready to serve, divide the salad greens out onto four plates. Whisk together all the ingredients for the vinaigrette, and pour about half of it over the lentils. Toss, and check for seasoning. Lay three leeks on each plate near or over the lentils (whichever looks prettiest). Drizzle the leeks with the remaining vinaigrette, and scatter on the thyme garnish and the celery leaves.