The most interesting thing in cooking is not what you make. The most interesting thing is what you make of what you make. Exhibit A: lentils.
1 cup dried lentils — Le puy, French green or the Italian Castellucio, or the small Black Caviar.
1 small onion, 1 celery stalk, 1 peeled carrot, 1 peeled garlic clove, 2 slices of fennel or small leek (optional) all chopped well.
Bay leaf and stem of thyme.
2-3 cups of stock, on slow bubble.
A few things about lentils that no one will tell you:
Always rinse your lentils, then soak them for ten minutes. No one does this but do it. Then rinse them again and let them drip.
Use a good strong-bottomed pan, best a medium le Creuset.
When the chopped onion, garlic, celery, and carrot are softened in a little olive oil, add the still damp lentils to the mix, they should sizzle. Stir and when they stop sizzling, when their moisture is taken by the heat, then add the stock and the herbs — two cups for each cup of lentils. Let that bubble until the stock is near gone and the lentils should be ready, or close. Stir them deeply. Add salt and pepper, even a little lime or lemon juice. Cover, they are ready to use. Check for salt.
Second thing about lentils — they are incomparably better the next day. But, to keep that secret, they certainly do not look better. They take on a dullness in the fridge and they look more a fatality than a promise. Do not be fooled nor forget them. Heated, with just a little olive oil and warm water, and they perk to life, with remarkable taste and vitality. They are suddenly ready to go, ready to play and dance and run with any foods.
Keep a small pot of stock or water, slightly bubbling, when you are reheating lentils, it will be the perfect makeup for the lentils as they cook. You can throw all of the cooking scraps into the pot. Parsley ends and pea pods and such.
How to Use Lentils
Add cooked lentils like a handful of pebbled sand. They are a wonderful ally to cooked beets or any room-temperature fish or chicken. If added to a smooth tomato sauce, they give a texture and depth like a ground beef or pork. Add a handful to a soup, especially a smooth cauliflower or potato leek, and the lentils will look lovely. And be the best guest.
Mix the cooked lentils with chopped basil, baby spinach, fresh plain yogurt, chopped plain roasted walnuts, a little olive oil and pepper and salt, for lunch or alongside. Add some grated parmesan, just at the end.
The chanterelles are finally coming, at least some of them, as the rain comes. Sauté them, with sliced garlic, oil and butter, white wine and parsley and stock, and lay them over the just cooked lentils. Make a little extra sauce in the pan, with a touch of wine and very cold butter, to add at the end. Then you have it.
I love lentils. Growing up, I thought of them as lowly fare (my father called them Havre caviar), and when I was in college, I considered them humorless hippie health food. Then I had my first lentil, potato, sausage, and shallot salad with mustard vinaigrette at Maximilien many years ago. Oh my god. I never made fun of them again.
Your risotto-style treatment, where you sizzle them in oil before adding the liquid to the pot, is very smart. I imagine it helps preserve some of their structural integrity. Nobody likes a flabby lentil.