I Have Finally Reconsidered The Lentil
Here we have a shockingly good and adaptable pasta, a $15 tin of anchovies you actually need, a reminder to pay attention to the dusty corners of your pantry.
I’ve been rude to lentils. There’s always a handful of them shaking around in a deli container in my pantry, waiting humble and patient until I run out of beans, or run out of everything. Here is a food I forget that I like, even though it’s never done anything unkind to me, certainly not in my own kitchen. I love a lentil salad but never make one. Lentil soup reminds me of getting the disappointing vegetarian option, though I know it can be rich and jazzy in its own right.
Lentils are a true pantry food: they are there for the times when you will not or cannot go to the store. When a meal must happen regardless. In that way, they are here to surprise you.
The most shocking lentils I have eaten were, forgive me for doing this, in Paris a few years ago. During the day, Le Rubis—a lunch counter-slash-wine bar with oxblood leather booths, butter yellow walls, covered in framed whatever, and a zinc bar—feeds men in collard shirts on their lunch break having little glasses of beer. The day it fed me I had already walked nearly ten miles, and shed a tear at the museum of decorative arts, it’s just full of pots! I needed to eat and I didn’t want to wait in line, or pay for something sceney, or weigh any trendy options against each other. I wanted to sit in a restaurant that wouldn’t make me hate myself or the people around me. Luckily I found this place on some David Lebovitz list, so me and my swollen feet hoofed it over there, it’s quite close to the Louvre. Really my only Paris tip for you, that and the decorative arts museum. I ordered a plate of lentils and sausage, perhaps only because it seemed filling and I understood what the words on the menu meant.
What I didn’t know was that my lunch came with a little crock of Dijon mustard—the sharp kind, that so quickly reminds your sinuses of wasabi. A little wicker basket of baguette segments too, of course. Any permutation of bites thrilled: a slice of sausage dunked in mustard; baguette smeared with same then swiped through the lentils; you get the picture, I was going nuts for it, I ordered a second glass of wine.
The lentils and sausage would have been delicious on their own, earthy and fatty and kind. But the dijon’s acid and heat lifted them up like puppet strings, made them dance. It’s the same reason that Long Island Bar serves my favorite burger in New York: ask for a side of mustard and they’ll give you the good spicy dijon, the perfect condiment for fry-dipping, and something to keep your rich meal lighter on its feet.
A few weeks after eating at Le Rubis I recreated the dish for some friends at home, using fancy sausage from the butcher shop and the Patricia Wells lentils. The meal feels like a magic trick when you serve it for others—a condiment can make all this brown stuff so vivid! It is dijon as fairy dust, a home cook’s last-minute flourish. And anyways, we should consider sausage for dinner more often. Lentils make them feel virtuous rather than roguish.
It’s too easy to think of lentils as bland, but they in fact taste like dirt, and I say this kindly. This is both why I ignore them and why, when I do remember them, I cherish them. That earthiness is something meaningful to play off of. Patricia Wells’ recipe is genius because of the way it coaxes smoothes and brightens the lentils, shows you what a lash of acid can do to them. It gives them the Doolittle treatment, turns them refined.
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