I like beans all year round, but I especially appreciate them in winter. A plate of pinto beans studded with hunks of smoky, long-cooked bacon, for me, is a special feast. Or cannellini beans stewed with olive oil and herbs, or a steaming bowl of spicy black bean soup. I’m a lentil fan, too. I like them in nearly any guise, from any of the world’s cuisines.
Bright coral-hued red lentils are a favorite of mine; since they have the hulls removed, they cook quickly, so they are perfect for soups and for traditional Indian dal. Ordinary brown lentils, the kind you find in the supermarket, are also good for soup, though a brown lentil soup has a somewhat somber appearance.
Lentils from Castelluccio, in Umbria, Italy, are small and extremely tasty, and they keep their shape when cooked, though there are other excellent varieties found in the country’s different regions. Lentils and sausage are a common Italian theme, and, for the New Year, lentils are considered auspicious. Their coin-shaped form, it is said, invites prosperity.
In France, you find lentil salad on offer in nearly every charcuterie, to be eaten with slices of garlicky saucisson, perfectly combined for a light supper or an impromptu picnic.
These lentils might be the tiny, celebrated ones from Le Puy, in the Auvergne region. Lentilles du Puy, as they are called, are a beautiful mottled gray-green, and one of their virtues is keeping somewhat firm when cooked, and not collapsing into mush. (Of course, their primary virtue is their delicious flavor, verging on nutty.)
Lentils really shine in tandem with duck. Duck with lentils (combined in various ways) is considered delicious everyday fare for lunch or dinner in France. There are variations on the theme on restaurant menus and in home kitchens.
It might be a roasted duck breast, a braised duck leg or a crisp fried piece of duck confit, snuggled against a mound of juicy lentils cooked with onion, carrot, celery and thyme. The combination is almost magical, a truly serendipitous pairing.
For a holiday gathering, I bought small duck legs and braised them with red wine and aromatics, aiming for something similar to coq au vin. I wanted a deep-flavored saucy dish for a chilly winter evening.
I could have served a potato purée, a familiar accompaniment to this sort of stew, but, thankfully, I had lentils in the pantry.
The combination of tender braised duck, earthy lentils and an assortment of root vegetables was a winning one for a warming winter meal.
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