For the Love Lentils (and Salmon)

This dinner, North African Spiced Salmon Over French Lentils, ended up being one of those meals that far exceeded our expectations. While the recipe sounded real good when we read it in our Fine Cooking Magazine, the final result was fantastic! Even if you’re not overly fond of lentils, or haven’t tried them in some time, do yourself a favor and give them another chance.

Lentils are an inexpensive, low-carbon, high-fiber source of protein with plenty of important nutrients, including potassium and folate. But mainly, they’re down-right delicious! Although they weren’t high on my list (for some unexplainable reason) all that many years ago… I’m glad I came to my senses since then…

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Dried lentils are a year-round staple, essential for rounding out salads during hot weather and hearty soups in the winter months. Regardless of the season, their quick-cooking, no-soak-required nature makes them ideal for healthy weeknight meals. It’s also important to buy the freshest lentils you can find and then use them within a few months. Older lentils take longer to cook and tend to shed their skins during cooking.

With some variation, lentils are earthy and sweet. Their texture ranges, depending on the type and how long the’ve been cooked, from nubby and just tender, to soft and almost puréed, perfect for soups and stews. (See the list of the most common and their characteristics at the end of this post.) Cooked lentils will keep refrigerated for about a week.

According to award-winning food, nutrition and travel writer, Marge Perry, go to any French bistro, and you’ll likely find a dish of lentils and salmon. It’s a classic for good reason: lean, mellow lentils complement the richness of the fish. Her version, North African Spiced Salmon Over French Lentils, includes a Moroccan-inspired spice rub on the salmon. (Do not substitute other lentils for the French in this recipe.)

The rich peppery flavor of French Green Lentils is due in part to the volcanic soils where they grow. Also known as puy lentils, they were originally grown in Puy, in southwest France. Today they are also grown in Italy and North America, but are still identified as “Puy lentils” or “lentilles du Puy” because of their origins. And while their color is mostly a beautiful slate green, they are marbled with flecks of darker slate blue. If they were stones, I’d love to make jewelry out of them, but I digress…

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French lentils are not always easy to find. Our main grocery store, which carries a lot of unusual and exotic food items, did not have them; but our local, less upscale supermarket did carry them along with Beluga lentils (which I will blog about in the future.) There’s also a subtle flavor difference with French lentils which have a slightly flinty taste—earthy with a slight mineral edge.

For the full-flavor experience as you eat, flake the salmon into the lentils to better distribute those aromatic spices throughout the dish… then sit back and savor every bite…

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Mix the spices together and rub all over the top flesh side of the salmon.

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Toast the pine nuts, but watch carefully as they will burn quickly.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup French lentils (lentils du Puy), rinsed
  • 1/3 cup dried apricots, finely diced
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley; more for serving, if you like
  • 1 Tbs. drained capers
  • 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • Fine sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/8 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 4 6-oz. salmon fillets, skinless or skin on
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

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Chopped dried apricots and French lentils simmer for about 35-45 minutes (ours took 37 minutes.)

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After the onions cook, add the lentils, parsley, capers, lemon zest and juice, and salt…

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…and stir to combine.

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Cook the salmon, flesh side down, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes, then flip.

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Salmon fillets are plated and ready for serving.

Directions

  1. In a 4-quart saucepan, bring the lentils and 3 cups water (see our note below*) to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer, add the apricots, and gently simmer until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape, 35 to 45 minutes. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the lentils, parsley, capers, lemon zest and juice, and 1/4 tsp. salt, and stir to combine. Keep warm over low heat.
  3. Combine the cumin, paprika, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, allspice, cayenne, and 1/2 tsp. salt in a small bowl. Pat the spice mix onto the salmon.
  4. Heat the remaining 1 Tbs. oil in another 12-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the salmon, flesh side down, and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes.
  5. Turn and cook to your liking, another 2 to 3 minutes for salmon that’s barely opaque in the center. Serve the salmon over the lentils, garnished with more parsley, if you like, and with the lemon wedges.

FYI—The directions indicate to simply cook the lentils in water*, because a number of other additional ingredients will lend a variety of flavor nuances. But if making them alone, I learned from another favorite cookbook author, Dorie Greenspan to cook in plenty of homemade stock with one lone clove, a bay leaf, and a bit of Cognac. These few ingredients make all of the difference in the world because the flavors are so much deeper and more pronounced, the one little clove will add warmth, the stock a meatiness, and the Cognac a bit of richness that you don’t often find in legumes.

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And keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming blog on our side salad: Orange, Pear, and Date Salad with Orange-Rosemary Vinaigrette… (unfortunately my camera lens was fogged and many of the pictures are not crisp 😦

The Six Most Common Types of Lentils

Yellow and Red

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes
Small split lentils with a tendency to break down during cooking. Great for making thick soups or dal, an Indian lentil stew usually served with rice.

Green

Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
Widely available, large, and mild in flavor, these cook quickly, making them a good choice for a simple side dish. Just toss with fresh herbs, oil, and vinegar.

Brown

Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
The most common variety sold in the United States. Large and rich, but prone to mushiness. Stir into a vegetable stew to add protein and thickness.

Black (Beluga)

Cook time: 30 to 40 minutes
Like caviar (hence the name), these are small and nearly spherical, with a firm texture that makes them a great addition to cold or warm salads.

French (du Puy)

Cook time: 40 to 45 minutes
Small and dark green, with a deep, earthy flavor. They take longer to cook but retain their shape, making them a fine upgrade for classic lentil soup—and this recipe!

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