In the mid-80s, after a long day of wrestling with algebra and 7th-grade-girl politics, my best friend Jeni and I would head to her house to decompress with a Ms. Pacman marathon. I remember the two of us walking into the sunny foyer of their tall Victorian, dumping our CB jackets and LeSportSacs in a big mound on the floor (so thoughtful), and then, like programmed robots who had no say in the matter, heading straight for the kitchen.
Remember when Bugs Bunny would smell something delicious and he would literally float in the air following the wafting aroma? That was what it was like walking into that house. More often than not, Jeni’s mother Rosa would be in her kitchen cooking up a roast, baking a pie, or concocting dinner from one of the stained cards or yellowed New York Times clippings that were jammed into a little wooden recipe box on the counter.
I felt so comfortable in their home that I would open the refrigerator and poke around for something to eat without even asking. Unlike in my house, where the idea of a jackpot after school snack was an Entenmann’s chocolate frosted doughnut dipped in a glass of whole milk, a jackpot at Jeni’s was a tupperware container filled with leftovers from dinner the night before. And on the best days, one of those leftovers was Rosa’s lentil salad. There was nothing terribly fancy about the recipe — it was made with lentils, scallions, peppers, and a tarragon-spiked vinaigrette — but something magical would happen overnight when all those flavors mingled. I would’ve bypassed the entire Entenmann’s section in Grand Union for a bowl of the stuff.
I probably ate the lentil salad eight hundred times in my childhood, but I don’t think one of those times was in a proper dinner table setting. The only way I can remember eating it is straight from the tupperware container, both Jeni and I sitting on the Marimekko-cushioned kitchen bench fighting each other for every last bite. And even though I’ve since made some version of the recipe in my own kitchen eight hundred times (most recently last week alongside a simple salmon), that still remains my favorite way to eat it.
Last week, I had the salad with fresh market spinach (sauteed in garlic and olive oil) and a salmon I’m testing for the book. That one is not ready for prime time yet, so in the meantime you can just use this basic salmon recipe.
Rosa’s Lentil Salad
For so long I approached cooking lentils like cooking risotto — that is, I felt I needed to be very scientific about the amount of liquid to lentils I was using. Once I started approaching cooking lentils like cooking pasta it was somewhat liberating. Also: Rosa’s lentil salad was always made from regular brown lentils, but I try to sub in belugas — which hold their shape better and look so pretty — whenever I have them on hand.
1 cup beluga lentils (or regular brown lentils)
2 1/2 – 3 cups liquid (chicken stock, water) or enough to cover lentils by about an inch
1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts), chopped
3 tablespoons chopped bell pepper (any color — I used orange here since it was what I had, but Rosa’s was always a mix of green and red)
leaves from two sprigs of fresh thyme (or finely chopped parsley)
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
little less than 1/4 cup vinegar (I used white balsamic, but you can use tarragon, red wine, regular balsamic)
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
In a medium pot, boil lentils in broth-water combo, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes (15 if you are using belugas, more like 20 for regular lentils). While lentils are cooking, make your dressing by whisking together mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
When lentils are tender, but still holding their shape, drain. Toss lentils with scallions, pepper, thyme, and vinaigrette. (You may not need all the vinaigrette — so drizzle it in instead of dumping it until it looks right.)