Wednesday, August 23, 2000
Although school has already started, the upcoming Labor Day holiday will be the symbolic end of summer vacation ï¿½ and the last official occasion for picnics and barbecues before autumn begins in earnest.
Whether your Labor Day gathering is potluck, or you're in charge of the entire meal, a refrigerated salad is likely to be part of the menu. For one thing, the salad can be made ahead and stowed in a cooler. With the right mix of ingredients, your side dish can be the hit of the meal.
This lentil and feta cheese salad is just such a showstopper. I first ate it when Nancy Smith, who wrote the column in this space before me, brought the dish to a summer potluck at my house six years ago. I was instantly taken with it and have made it several times since. At one point I mislaid the recipe, but was both pleased and relieved to discover that Nancy O'Connor, the nutritionist at the Community Mercantile Co-op, was distributing copies of it, as well as free samples, in the store a couple years ago.
This salad has attracted a following in Lawrence, and for good reason. The gentle bite of the feta and lemon juice is nicely offset by the earthiness of the lentils. The tomatoes, green pepper and olives add both color and flavor. For this salad I prefer to use red lentils, which will cook up brown, because they contrast in color with the other ingredients.
Lentils are an underappreciated legume. They turn up in Middle Eastern recipes and are a popular soup ingredient in Europe, but they have never found wide acceptance in this country. This is unfortunate for us, because we tend to like things that cook quickly. I know of no other dried bean that can be finished on the stove in half an hour without soaking.
Like many other beans, lentils have a flavor that is neutral enough to accept and complement a variety of herbs and other ingredients. That's why they work so well in soups and salads. Lentils, flavored with chopped onion and herbs, also can be served on the side of a meal.
When cooking lentils, aim for an al dente doneness. Lentils are trickier to cook than other legumes because they leave you less margin for error. The shell should remain intact, although you may have some splitting along the edge of the bean. However, the middle should not be mushy. If the shell begins to slough off, you've gone too far.
To reduce the risk of overcooking the lentils, reduce the heat to a low simmer after the initial boil ï¿½ then watch them like a hawk. The only reliable way I know to test them for doneness is to occasionally spoon one out and bite down on its middle. If you think they're almost done, they probably are.
Remember that the salad contains some liquid ingredients, so the lentils will soften a bit further while the salad sits. Also, wait to adjust the seasoning until the salad has chilled a bit, as the lentils will absorb and mellow the other flavors.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.
Lentil and Feta Salad
1 cup raw lentils
1 green pepper, chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup sliced black olives
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried basil
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed
1 tablespoon fresh summer savory, thyme or oregano, or 1/2 teaspoon dried herbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Wash and drain lentils and place them in a tall saucepan. Cover with 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Watch lentils toward the end of the cooking time so they don't overcook. Cool the cooked lentils, then mix with remaining ingredients, except lettuce leaves and lemon wedges. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow flavors to mesh. Add more salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.
Serve on a bed of lettuce leaves and garnish with lemon wedges.