It’s hard to know what to eat at the cusp of spring. In the upper reaches of the Northeast, bare brown branches scrape each other in the chilly wind against a murky sky, not quite blue, not quite gray.
A few robins appeared on the dingy lawn last week, a hopeful sign, but even they looked out of place. Their heads bobbed this way and that.
Where are the worms?
The earth beneath them—dead grass the color of old cement—was still awaiting rejuvenation from the first warm April rain. An imminent meal for the robins did not look very promising.
My brain is yearning for spring and thinking salad, but my appetite is stuck in winter—it wants warming foods, substance. Pale, soft lettuces, fresh bright peas, baby leeks—these are still in my future. I hope in a not too distant one. In the meantime, I am transitioning with lentils. I have been making lentil soup for weeks on end: lentils with curry, lentils with sausage, red lentils, green lentils, yellow lentils, thick stewed lentils enveloping a few handfuls of something green like kale, Swiss chard, watercress. Lentils topped with feta cheese or crusty pita toasts.
Yet my mind is overtaking the demands of my body;
I will have my salad
, it states with imperiousness. Young arugula, with its sharp, peppery edge matches my impatience for the new season’s arrival. A salad of its dark green leaves, fortified with hearty lentils, spring onions, and some pan-seared tomatoes, fits the bill, a truce in the mind/body conflict and a nod to both seasons as they merge and move more definitively toward spring.
Le Puy lentils
Ordinary brown lentils
The lentils I used in this salad are Le Puy lentils—small, green lentils from France. They hold their shape well in cooking, so they are ideal candidates for eating warm, cold, or, most preferably, at room temperature. Another small lentil choice comes from Italy: Umbrian lentils (
.) Start by flavoring some olive oil with crushed coriander seeds in a skillet. (If you don’t have a mortar, enclose the coriander seeds in a zip lock bag and crush them with a rolling pin.) Sear some cherry tomatoes, and let them cool on a plate, while you make the vinaigrette in the skillet to soak up all the coriander tomato goodness. To mitigate the strong flavor of onion that will overpower the salad if it sits untamed, stir them into the lentils while they are hot, and add a bit of the vinaigrette at the same time, another flavor-soaking exercise. Finally, dress the leaves with the remaining vinaigrette and top them all off with the lentils and satisfying salty crumbles of feta. A fine meal to savor while waiting for the daffodils to pop.
Lentil, arugula, and feta salad
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, coarsely crushed in a mortar
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup small green lentils, such as Le Puy or Castelluccio
1/4 red onion or 1 small spring onion, thinly sliced,
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 bunches (6 cups) arugula
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1. In a skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with the coriander seeds. Add the tomatoes, cut side down. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the tomatoes are slightly soft but still hold their shape. Remove the pan from the heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes to a plate to cool.
2. For the vinaigrette: Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the skillet. Stir in the vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. Leave to cool in the pan.
3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the lentils. Simmer over medium-low heat for 18 to 20 minutes, or until they are tender but still hold their shape.
4. Drain in a colander and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the onions and 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Let cool to warm room temperature. Stir in the cilantro and cherry tomatoes.
5. In a salad bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining vinaigrette. Pile the lentils on top, and sprinkle with the feta.