I have an uneven history with chef cookbooks. I have learned the hard way more often than I’ve wished to that just because I might enjoy sitting down at someone’s restaurant table does not mean that their work will translate into an enjoyable home cooking experience — you know, one without sous-chefs and dishwashers, plural, at ones disposal, and a customer base footing the bill for the Himalayan pink salt. The best of these books make for wonderful reading and bring the fresh air of a new flavors and tricks into your home cooking routine but the worst, well, yikes. You’re not getting those hours back.
So, despite the fact that I gushed about The Breslin nearly a year ago and also in an interview for Amazon, and even though I’ve fussed over The Spotted Pig, I didn’t even consider picking up chef April Bloomfield’s* book, A Girl and Her Pig because the odds felt slim that it would provide me with anything close to the joy that her cooking does at a dark table in the Ace Hotel, with a grapefruit gin-and-tonic (swoon) in my hand.
And then her book swept mine in the final round of a cookbook competition and I knew from reading the gushing praise bestowed on it by an entire series of independent reviewers that I was the one missing out. When I bought the book last week, I immediately ran off to the back room to hide with it for a while and proceeded to fall deeply, immensely in love. Bloomfield might be known for her nose-to-tail cookery but time and again, it’s her way with vegetables and one-off dishes that blow me away. From the earliest pages, she taunts you with Squash and Pancetta Toasts, Toasts with Ramp Butter and Fried Quail Eggs, a stack of lacy-thin crepe pancakes with Bacon and Chilis, a spring vegetable soup with everything from Jersualem Artichokes to white beans and vinegary Devilled Eggs. It doesn’t hurt that her go-to favorite ingredients seem to overlap with mine (lemon, feta, garlic, cumin, sesame, and flaky sea salt) but it makes it even more fun that she had me, within a day, reaching outside my comfort zone trying to track down rice grain-sized dried pequin chilies in New York, pulling the green germs out of the center of garlic cloves and pulling down my dusty, mostly ignored, coffee grinder so that I could find out why she gushed so much about the flavor of freshly toasted and ground spices.
I realize at the outset the prospect of a lentil and chickpea salad doesn’t sound very intriguing. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d eat because you ought to, and “ought to’s” rarely make for delicious eating. But she uses a series of techniques to make these humble ingredients one of the most intense and complexly flavored salad experiences I’ve ever made at home. Thank goodness.
Making the salad might seem pesky. You toast whole spices and grind them. The onions have one treatment, the lentils another, the dressing a third and I seriously read the plating instructions four times (given, I had a yelling three year-old nearby, but hey, that’s real life innit?) and I still couldn’t make sense of why it had to be so complicated. And while this is usually the point where I say, “I simplified it for you! You’ll make it in less time than I did!” we hadn’t even finished our first bite before I realized I didn’t want to. I’ll suggest places here and there where corners can be cut without taking away from the recipe’s central awesomeness, but I also think that if you can find a little extra time to putter in the kitchen, you’ll find brilliance in the way she wrote it. And that, really, is the fun of trying new recipes, right?
* I have a favor to ask: On the cover of her book, April Bloomfield stands with a dead pig slung across her shoulders. I realize that this isn’t for everyone. Not everyone eats meat, those who do may not eat pork products, and even those who do may not want to see their food staring back at them. But whenever I’ve read a review of or discussion about her book, inevitably, a slew of comments will say “Eeeewwww!” and — it shouldn’t, I should just tune it out, move on with my life — it drives me batty. Please keep in mind that Bloomfield hails from the nose-to-tail cooking school; she works with animals that were as humanely raised as possible and uses every part. She gives the animals she cooks the most respect a chef can, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling that it’s still not for you — nobody is saying that you must find great joy in looking at dead animals, or that you have to look at all — but yelling “icky!” at someone who eats or cooks something you don’t like is never going to be the way to begin a grown-up conversation about things that matter. Trust me. I have a three year-old; I know about these things.
One year ago: Raspberry-Coconut Macaroons
Two years ago: Spaetzle
Three years ago: Baked Kale Chips and Almond Macaroon Torte with Chocolate Frosting
Four years ago: Beef Empanadas, Homemade Chocolate Wafers + Icebok Cupcakes and Bialys
Five years ago: Chicken with Almonds and Green Olives and Swiss Easter Rice Tart
Six years ago: Risotto al Barolo, Rich Buttermilk Waffles and Argula Ravioli
Lentil and Chickpea Salad with Feta and Tahini
Tweaked, just a bit, from April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig
I promised to list places where I felt the recipe could be streamlined. For example, I don’t think that a tremdendous amount will be lost if you don’t cook your lentils with garlic cloves and sage. (Though, they tasted and smelled amazing when I did.) You could use spices already ground; I’d use 1/3 to 1/2 of each if so. (But, my heavens, they were bursting with flavor when I started whole.) You could probably press your garlic clove rather than mashing it to a paste with salt in a mortar or on a cutting board. I simplified the assembly process a little and actually skipped the preserved lemon because neither my husband nor I are very into them, and hey, we’re the ones eating the dish. I used sheep’s milk feta instead of goat, because that’s what I usually have around (Bulgarian and French are my favorite types, if you can find either). And I used parsley instead of cilantro.
But, I can also promise this: Should you feel like spending a little bit of extra time in the kitchen this week, there’s so much to absorb here, from the amazing background sage, garlic and olive oil infuse tiny green lentils with, from the roasty depth of pan-toasted, finely ground spices, the sweet nuttiness of sesame seeds, toasted two shades darker, to almost pickling red onion slices with lemon juice. This salad, made as written, was more layered and complex than I ever imagined a legume salad being, and it made my week.
Scant 1 cup dried green lentils (Puy or Casteluccio, if you can find them) lentils, picked and rinsed over
2 large garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
2 fresh sage sprigs
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the dressing and salad
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, toasted and ground**
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground**
1/2 large garlic clove
Salt (Maldon or another flaky sea salt if you’ve got it)
2 tablespoons well-stirred tahini paste
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
1 and 3/4 cups drained chickpeas (from a 15-ounce can), low sodium if you can find them
1/2 small preserved lemon, pith and flesh discarded, rind finely diced (optional)
1 very small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
A handful of small, delicate cilantro or flat-leaf parsley sprigs
A scant 1/4 cup feta (goat’s milk if you can find it, otherwise use what you can get)
1 and 1/2 tablespoons raw sesame seeds, toasted in a dry pan until a shade or two darker
Make the lentils: Put the lentils, garlic, sage, and olive oil in a small pot, along with 2 cups cold water, and set it over medium heat. Let the water come to a simmer (not boiling), then turn the heat to low and cook the lentils in a very gentle simmer just until they are tender — April recommends 25 minutes, but mine took 35 and needed a touch more water at the end. Take the pan off the heat and let the lentils cool a bit before draining them. Pick out and discard the sage and garlic. You’ll have about 2 cups cooked lentils.
Make the dressing: Mix together the ground coriander and cumin in a small bowl. Mash the garlic clove to a paste with 1 teaspoon salt (use half as much Kosher salt, even less table salt) on a cutting board or in a mortar. In a small bowl for your dressing, combined the mashed garlic, tahini, 3 tablespoons of the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon of the ground coriander-and-cumin mixture and 2 tablespoons water. Stir well, then taste. Add more lemon if desired.
Assemble the salad: Place onion slices in a medium bowl and break them up with your fingers. Sprinkle in two good pinches of salt, then two teaspoons of lemon juice, two remaining teaspoons of olive oil and the cilantro or parsley. Toss well, then crumble in the cheese and gently toss again.
Toss the lentils with the drained chickpeas, preserved lemon rind (if using), and 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt (use half as much Kosher salt, even less table salt) in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the tahini dressing and toss it all together really well, then stir in the onion-feta mixture.
Arrange the salad in bowl or platter. Sprinkle the mixture with the sesame seeds and some of the remaining spices. Serve, and don’t forget to share.
** To toast and grind spices: Put the spices, one at a time, in a small dry pan over medium-high heat. Toast, shaking the pan frequently, until the spices become very sweet and fragrant, anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes. Let them cool in a bowl or on a small plate and grind in a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder.