Beluga Lentils with Pistou

Williams-Sonoma is a beautiful, dangerous place.  A couple weekends ago, when I was wandering the streets of downtown Chicago, I happened across their store on the Magnificent Mile.  I, of course, needed to go in.  About half-an-hour and several laps around the store later, my lovely, bestest food-studying-shopping-comic-aficionado companion Tor purchased a cake pan with molds of the faces of six Marvel characters (you'll probably witness the christening of this pan in the near future).  I myself left contentedly with a box of Italian 00 flour and a bag of wonderful beluga lentils.

In Europe, flour is classified by the grind, with 00 being the finest, followed by 0, 1, and 2, which is the coarsest.  Additionally, these numbers refer to the ash content of the flour, but I am not as familiar with this subject... All I know is that 00 has the lowest ash content, and 2 has the highest.  In America, we classify our flours by gluten content.  Pastry flour has less gluten than all-purpose, which has less than bread flour, and so on.  This is not the whole story, however.  American flours tend to be derived from red wheat, which has different texture properties than durum wheat, from which most European flours are ground.  Generally, American flour is "chewier" than European flour due to the differences between these wheat varieties.  Thus, the common assertion that all-purpose flour has more gluten than 00 flour, which renders the "chewier" texture of all-purpose, is a food myth.  Yes, gluten level does contribute to "chewiness", and is a useful comparison between American flours, such that products made with bread flour will be "chewier" than those with all-purpose, for example.  But gluten level is not a precise way to compare American and European flours.

Now, let us talk about beluga lentils.  The little guys are just so darn cute!  These small, black spheres look strikingly like caviar... And surprise surprise, they are aptly named after beluga caviar.  I would go on a rant about how good they are for you, but then, you've probably already heard this about lentils in general, and this variety is certainly no exception, so I shall refrain.  What I would like to rant about, however, is the fact that Hyde Park Produce (where I do most of my grocery shopping) is out of pomegranates.  Oh, the humanity.  This salad would have been absolutely perfect adorned with those crimson seeds, crunchy like a nut and sweet like a fruit at the same time.  Alas, it was not to be.  Green grapes provided a lovely substitute, but I was missing the crunch that I craved.  Some toasted almonds would have been excellent on this, to balance the soft textures of the lentils, goat cheese, and smoked salmon and to highlight the flavor of the pistou.  The recipe below will feature pomegranate seeds because that is what I had intended, but if you want to use green grapes and almonds then please do.


What is pistou, you may ask?  Short answer is pesto minus pine nuts (traditional versions also omit the parmigiano reggiano, but this cheese makes appearances in more modern renditions).  Longer answer is that pistou means "pounded" in Provenรงal; moreover, this notion became most strongly associated with the combination of basil, garlic, and olive oil after contact with the Genoese people and their traditional pesto.  But one could make a pistou of, say, tomatoes, or arugula, so the term doesn't strictly apply to basil.  I am a firm believer that pistou, and pesto for that matter, is absolutely best made by hand, with a mortar and pestle.  There is no other way to extract that same sensation of essential oils bursting from crushed leaves, permeating taste and olfaction with utter basil in its purest, most exquisite form.


Beluga Lentils with Pistou (for two)

2 cups water
1/2 cup beluga lentils
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, divided
3 cloves garlic, peeled and divided 
~2 ounces basil leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 ounces goat cheese
~1 pomegranate's worth of seeds
4 ounces smoked salmon

In a saucepot, bring the water and 2 whole garlic cloves to a boil.  Add 1 teaspoon salt, then the lentils, and cook ~20 minutes until tender.  Meanwhile, with your mortar and pestle, crush the other clove of garlic.  Add the remaining teaspoon of salt (it's very important that it's coarsely ground, because the sharp granules will help the pounding process), then the basil in batches depending on the size of your mortar.  Use the pestle to mash the leaves and garlic together into a paste.  Once this has been achieved, mash the olive oil into the basil-garlic mixture.

Drain the excess liquid from the lentils, remove the garlic cloves, then combine with the pistou.  After this mixture has cooled slightly, crumble in the goat cheese and fold in the pomegranate seeds.  Finish with shards of smoked salmon, and dig in.

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