Julia Child was not the only foreign wife who, newly landed in France, didn't know how to cook. I didn't either. A gaping difference between her and myself is that my husband didn't send me to cooking school. He was French.
During that period when I was truly learning to cook, and not just making spaghetti or pancakes, Jacques would bring home some of the most surprisingly delicious canned goods to tide himself over. The superior quality of many industrially prepared foods in France never ceased to amaze me, then and even years after of plowing through pages of Julia Child's and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II.
A favorite off-the-shelf lentil preparation, and one that is as wide-spread in France as Campbell's Pork and Beans is in the States--but oh so much better, is William Saurin's Petit Salé à l'Auvergnate. Why, it's so good that I've tried to make it from scratch myself. A classic. Recipe follows.
A LENTIL WITH A PEDIGREE by P.B. Lecron
What sets the green lentil of Puy apart from its more humble cousins--the brown, the red, the blond varieties?
Grown on the same volcanic soils for more than 2000 years in the Auvergne region of France's Massif Central mountain range, the compact and shiny dark-green beauty of a seed, the lentille verte du Puy, is so revered that the French have given it a special title of nobility.
That's the highly-prized "A.O.C." label, an acronym for "appellation d'origine controllée." It's proof that a particular agricultural product specific to a region meets strict standards of quality, origin and conditioning. The much sought after label is not just a seal of approval, it's a governmental guarantee that a traditional food product--typical to a region and identified as such--is authentic, or simply put, the real McCoy.
In 1996 the green lentil of Puy became the first legume to enter the closed and prestigious circle of A.O.C. label bearers, which until then had been the exclusive reserve of French wines and cheeses.
So what sets this little darling of French cooks apart from the other varieties? This lentil with a pedigree has deeper flavor than its humble cousins; and it retains its shape and color when cooked, making it ideal for salads. Unlike more common lentils, it has a creamy rather than grainy texture.
Regional growers attribute its unique characteristics to the local air, soil and sun on the more than 8,000 red-dirt acres where it's produced. This illustrates the meaning of what the French call "terroir," a not so easily translated word for the notion that the particular growing conditions coupled with man's know-how, affect the taste and quality of a product. Cultivated at altitudes from 2,300 to 3,600 feet, the lentil plants' exposition to cold, heat and hydric stress accelerate the seeds' maturation process--conditions that give these lentils their characteristically small size, fine texture and flavor.
Le Petit Salé aux Lentilles
The most well-known Auvergne regional lentil recipe is a hearty meal in itself and popular throughout France, so much so that you can buy excellent canned preparations of it in the supermarkets. But it's so easy, why not try making it yourself?
Place in a large pot and cover with water: dried lentils of Puy, lightly salted pork loin, ham hocks, sliced sausage, chopped carrots and celery, a couple of onions picked with two or three cloves, a bay leaf, a sprig of sage and a few peppercorns. As with many family recipes, the proportions depend on the cook's judgment and what's on hand. Simmer for 35 minutes.
Lentil & Caper Salad
Light eaters and vegetarians can enjoy this easy-to-fix salad that can also be used as an amuse-gueule or mise-en-bouche when served in tiny portions on a dainty plate or in verrines (small glasses used to serve appetizers to be eaten with a miniature spoon) just before a meal's first course.
Simmer 1 cup of dried green lentils of Puy 25-30 minutes in water, then drain and rinse with cold water. In a salad bowl combine lentils with 3 tablespoons each of chopped chives and scallions and 1/3 cup of drained capers. Add a stream of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste. Gently toss. Makes four large servings.
Text & photos ©2009P.B.Lecron