A reader complains: not enough starters. My column is all meat and two veg, and she just wants nice “startery” things. The complaint is ridiculous, of course, but this is a lady best not crossed. Apart from anything else, I am not a meat-and-two-veg sort of cook. Besides, I regularly do pasta and salads, but it seems that the appetite for starters is endless. I even got a grateful text message when I stuck a few things on toast the other week.
I hope the lentils will find favour. I used to have one grumpy customer who wouldn’t touch a lentil until it had been made into a soup, but he was definitely behind the times. Lentils are fashionable and, for some reason, considered incredibly healthy.
I have always liked lentils because their very earthiness is such a good foil for more exotic ingredients. Lobster with a soupy yellow lentil dahl-like purée, for example, is a beautiful combination and grilled sea bass with lentils and salsa verde has long been a staple at the restaurant. But apart from anything else, I have always marvelled at the very existence of the lentil. It is one of our oldest cultivated foods and yet it seems wildly impractical. Each pod contains just two little lentils, which suggests that the gathering and harvesting of the crop must have been unbelievably laborious.
It has always been difficult to get the seeds plump and ripe before the pod dries up so much that the seeds fall out during reaping – they used to be picked by hand and then dried before they were threshed to collect the seeds. The mechanised harvesting of lentils arrived relatively recently.
Beluga lentils are especially small and, unsurprisingly, a little more expensive. (A good firm green lentil would, incidentally, do very well in this recipe.) The Beluga lentil is comparatively hard and holds its texture remarkably well when cooked. Its christening may have been a brilliant marketing wheeze, but the comparison with caviar is not completely fanciful: the flavour is nothing like as intense, but they have a nutty, almost truffle-like aroma and do indeed melt on the tongue when correctly cooked. Perhaps not a starter for 10, but certainly for four.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Beluga lentils, carrots and burrata with dill
It is hard to improve on burrata – a form of supercharged, extra-creamy mozzarella – but there are many fresh cheeses that will act as a foil for the vegetables. A good ricotta, or indeed mozzarella, would be excellent. Serves four.
250g Beluga lentils
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
1 good bunch of new carrots
1 small bunch of dill, coarsely chopped
3 spring onions, chopped
● Rinse lentils in cold water and then place in a saucepan. Cover amply with cold water; the Beluga will absorb a lot, but you can add more. Add the onion – peeled, cut in half and with the interior of the two halves studded with the cloves – and then add the whole chilli, the bay leaves and thyme. Do not add salt at this point, as it will toughen the skins and prevent the lentils swelling. Bring the pot gently to a simmer, skim if necessary and cook the lentils until tender, for about 40 minutes.
● Peel the carrots, being sure to scrape around the stalks and rinse in cold running water. Place in a saucepan with a teaspoon of sugar, a good teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil and just enough water to cover. Cover with a disc of greaseproof paper, bring to a boil and cook steadily so that the water evaporates. The liquid should reduce to a syrupy glaze that enrobes the carrots. Remove from the stove and roll the carrots in the chopped dill.
● Take the lentils off the heat and pour off any excess water. Season with flaky sea salt, a squeeze of lemon juice and as much oil as you choose. Let the lentils cool. To serve, quarter the cheese and arrange the three elements on a dish or individual plates, sprinkling the cheese with a little more salt, the spring onions, a few chilli flakes and a little more olive oil. Serve with plain bread.
Rowley’s drinking choice
A lively, aromatic style is called for. The extra body and oily quality of a Vermentino – often called Rolle in southern France, where there are many fine examples – coupled with breezy, salty aromatics would be ideal.