Monday, February 25, 2013

Beluga Lentil Salad with Beets and Preserved Meyer Lemon


It's a strange time of year. We still have inches of snow on the ground, but I'm never quite sure if I should be wearing winter boots or rain boots. We were supposed to get a few flurries yesterday morning, but ended up getting quite a bit of snow--and yet I went running wearing at least a layer less than I usually do, and had everything completely unzipped by the time we finished, the sun was so warm. A couple of weeks ago, I was running in a t-shirt. But no matter how much sun we get or how mild the temperatures are, I know better than to get lulled into thinking winter might end early around here; it's a rare birthday for me when we don't get at least a little snow, and that's not until the first week of April.

Still, it's hard not to want to jump feet first into spring. After the inevitable glorying in all things rich and sweet that happens over Christmas and Valentine's Day, and with the advent of Lent (if you're into that sort of thing--I'm not much one for giving things up, unless it's things like self-criticism or trying to keep using hairpins that have no spring left in them), it seems like it should be time to shift gears and embrace all that is green and zingy and fresh and light. It's light out until 5:30! This is big news!


But then I step out the door and realize that I do still need my toque, that my favourite furry mittens can't make their way to the off-season box just yet. And I'm not all that sad about it. As much as I'm looking forward to endless bunches of asparagus dipped in egg yolk or aioli, fava beans coming out of my ears, and my first go at making strawberry jam, I'm not ready to give up my trays of roasted root vegetables, my rich gratins, my soupy braises and thick soups. At least, not quite yet. Which is why this recipe is something of a compromise. It starts out with those good winter staples that we eat day in and day out--roasted vegetables (this time, beets) and beluga lentils cooked with onions and bay leaf. But then--oh, yes--it goes in a totally different direction. Rather than banking down the deep and quiet flavours of beets and belugas with more ingredients that speak strongly of winter, it goes in quite the other direction. One that is positively punchy--salty-sour preserved Meyer lemon, crisp red pepper, and masses of fresh basil. Everything, from beet to basil, gets tied together with a bright dressing made with the pulp of said lemons, the best olive oil, a splash of tarragon vinegar, and some good salt and pepper. And it just sings.

If you don't already have a jar of preserved lemons steeping in the back of your fridge, I'd urge you to put one there. You don't have to make them yourself--they're easy enough to buy--but when "making" consists of a little cutting, some spooning of salt, some squishing, and a shake or two, it seems silly not to.  Like all citrus fruits, lemons are properly a winter thing--especially the short-seasoned Meyer lemons, which I used--but with their evocation of summertime lemonade stands and sunshine, they really do scream spring. And preserved lemons are useful for flinging into all sorts of things--salads like this, a long-simmered tagine, a dip for vegetables or a spread for sandwiches, a vast pan of sauteed greens or fennel--when flavours need "bringing up" or the dish needs a bit of light. They're the sequins of cooking--just what you need when what you need is a little bit of flash, a little bit of sparkle.

And with golden squares of lemon sparking against the dark background of lentil and beet, this salad manages to walk the line between winter and spring, hearty and light, earthy and bright, instead of being stolid and starchy. The beets are roasted, but not to oblivion, so they're sweet but not soft--just the bit of crunch this needs. The three registers of herbaceousness here also work to round everything out--the bay leaf plays the bass note, grounding everything, the basil makes everything fresh and green, and the tarragon vinegar sharpens the focus. Meyer lemons have a strong hit of rosemary in their fragrance and flavour, which makes them even an even more perfect partner for this herby trio. Another time, I'll try this with mint, and/or dill; fennel tops and celery leaves are other strong contenders.

This salad is substantial and filling, but it also hints of lighter days to come--days when lunchtime salads will be eaten on a picnic blanket, not at your desk. It's the kind of food I'll be turning to time and again as the planet slowly turns and we wait for spring. Because I'm not ready to give up my winter favourites just yet, but I'm also ready to start tiptoeing through the tulips into spring.


BELUGA LENTIL SALAD WITH BEETS AND PRESERVED MEYER LEMON

Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Preserved Lemons

Meyer lemons, or small organic lemons
Flaky salt
Lemon juice (optional)
A clean and resealable glass jar

Eyeball how many lemons will fit into your jar, and scrub them well. Cut them into quarters, from top to bottom, almost all of the way through. Stuff each lemon with a generous tablespoon of salt, and pack into the jar, pressing down. Leave on the counter overnight. If the lemons haven't released enough juice by that time to completely cover themselves, top up the jar with lemon juice. Refrigerate, shaking occasionally, for at least a month before using.

Salad 

5 beets, about one pound
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup beluga lentils
½ small onion, finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 preserved lemon or 2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 red pepper, finely diced
Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe below)
1 cup chopped basil

Preheat oven to 350F. Peel the beets and cut them into 1/4 inch cubes. Toss the beets with the oil, season with salt and pepper, and bake on a sheet pan until tender, about 35 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Meanwhile, put the lentils in a pan with water to cover, add the onion, bay leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until tender but still a little firm, about 25  minutes. Drain well.

Cut the preserved lemon into quarters and scrape off the soft pulp. Chop the pulp finely and reserve for the dressing. Finely chop the remaining skin. (Or just zest your lemon.)

Toss the lentils with the roasted beets and the vinaigrette, the preserved lemon or lemon zest, red pepper, and basil. Taste for seasoning, garnish with extra basil, and serve immediately at room temperature; alternatively, chill and serve later.

Lemon Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
The pulp of one preserved lemonFreshly ground pepper
1 shallot, finely diced
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or to taste
Flaky salt (optional; the lemon pulp might be salty enough)

Combine the first four ingredients in a small bowl and let stand for 15 minutes. Then whisk in the oil and season with pepper to taste. Taste for the correct the balance, adding more oil or salt if needed.

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