A French classic this week, but one many of you won’t have come across.
It’s very much an old-school bistro regular, but it never really made the jump across the Channel when its compatriots, Escargots à la Bourguignonne, Soupe A l’Oignon, Steak Tartare and Pot Au Feu managed to.
Perhaps it’s because, back in the late 60s, when the bistro scene took off, lentils were still seen as being a slightly hippy-ish ingredient, something that those enjoying the ‘alternative lifestyle’ would boil up in their yurts down in Wiltshire, and not something to even think of allowing into the kitchens of Didsbury and Harrogate.
Slowly, though, opinion has changed for the better, and now lentils are incredibly popular. And thank goodness, for the lentil is a wonderful, tasty and versatile addition to the kitchen cupboard.
I adore cooking with lentils, whether it’s making a simple, thick soup of yellow lentils, perhaps enlivened with some Indian spices and fresh coriander, or simmering black beluga lentils in a rich stock broth to accompany some roast game.
They make great stuffings for roast birds, fillings for pasties and such, and are wonderful when simmered in soups, stews and casseroles for added nutty texture.
The undisputed queen of the pulses is the Puy lentil, a beautiful grey-green nugget that is packed with earthy, mineral notes and delivers a hugely savoury punch in anything it touches.
True Puy lentils are only grown in and around the pretty mediaeval Auvergnat town of Le Puy-En-Velay, in the Haute-Loire département, and are protected by several regulations, such as the Appellation Contrôlée and a PDO.
These define how the lentils should be grown, and determine levels of quality and minerality, whilst preventing anyone else in the world from selling green lentils falsely and for a higher price, because the Puy lentil is incredibly tasty, and perhaps at its very tastiest when presented here, in this wonderful dish of cured pork and simple vegetables.
It’s a very basic recipe, pure soul-satisfying peasant food, and was traditionally used to make the most of winter’s preserved, salted meat by bulking it out with the pulses and whatever vegetables were lying around.
Over the years it became a popular home-cooking classic and eventually was refined into the dish we know today.
Many variations exist, and of course you’re free to play about with the herbs and even the cut of meat. I’m using the bistro-standard
poitrine, or belly, but recipes can also call for shoulder or hocks. It would even work well with gammon or ham joints. And should you be unable to find Puy lentils (they can be elusive) then regular green lentils work very well.
Just don’t use red lentils, as their texture will turn the whole thing into a soupy mess. A tasty soupy mess, I’ll grant you, but not what we’re after here.
We need a little bite left in the lentils, alongside the super-savoury melt-in-the-mouth braised pork.
I like to accompany my petit salé with the refreshing crunch of Cos or romaine lettuce wedges, barely dressed in a simple vinaigrette, for a lovely textural contrast, but even a simple green salad or some crunchy greens would be nice.