I first got into cooking when I was a teenager. I remember starting with salads (minimal risky heat sources.) I would toast bread to make my own “croutons,” crumble goat cheese and cut up just about every vegetable (and fruit) we had in the house. This was back when apple on salads was just becoming a thing, and I felt very advanced adding a McIntosh to the mix.
As I got older, and better with skills and flavor combinations (and croutons), family members would often gift me cookbooks and utensils— things to add to my own kitchen someday.
Then I went to college, and that was “someday” enough for me. If you’ve ever seen me pack for a vacation, just imagine what I expected to be able to fit in my very own dorm. Hint: it was a LOT. The necessary basics like a microwave and a mini fridge were joined by a full set of dishes, water glasses, coffee mugs, a coffee maker, a toaster, a sandwich maker— I’ll stop because this is getting embarrassing, but you get the idea. I am proud to say though, that I did show some shred of restraint, and left the expensive mandolin I had been gifted earlier that year, at home. I’m sure my then roommate would have been grateful had I ever admitted this before now.
If you are unfamiliar with a mandolin, it’s basically an extremely sharp blade affixed to a paddle against which you can thinly slice, crinkle cut or julienne food simply by running it back and forth over the blade. This of course is totally unnecessary in college, but now, I couldn’t love it more. The even, papery thin slices it creates elevate any dish. Simply put, mandolins make food pretty, and so here you have a pretty lentil salad. (Of course you can make this salad without the use of a mandolin, but should you want to purchase one, here’s my favorite! It’s small, effective and cheap.)
Lentils and green leaf lettuce make up a hearty base for the real stars of the show here: thinly sliced cucumbers, fennel, radishes, chiles and tomatoes. A subtle, toasted cumin vinaigrette dresses everything up. This dish is great on its own as a light lunch or side, but would also be lovely with added protein, feta or goat cheese.
Serves 2 as a main; 4 as a side
- ½ cup dry green lentils
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- juice of one lemon (about ¼ cup)
- 2 handfuls green leaf lettuce
- ¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
- 1 Persian cucumber
- 1 fennel stem (save the fronds for garnish)
- 4 radishes
- 1 Serrano chile
- 1 cup grape tomatoes (about 8-10)
- 2 scallions
- salt & freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot of salty water to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils, return to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well (this is important— wet lentils will make your whole salad soggy.)
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Once shimmering, remove from the heat and add the cumin seeds. The heat from the oil will make them fragrant and flavorful. This will be the base of your dressing. Set aside to cool completely.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the shallot, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Let sit while you thinly slice the remaining ingredients. A mandolin is ideal (but not necessary) for the cucumber, fennel, radishes and chile. Use a sharp knife to cut the tomatoes and scallions as thinly as you can.
Add the olive oil and cumin seeds to the bowl with the shallots and lemon juice. Use a fork to mix well. Set half of this dressing aside, leaving the remainder in the mixing bowl.
Add the lentils, lettuce and sunflower seeds to the mixing bowl, season with salt and pepper and toss. Spread the mixture out onto a serving dish to create a base for your sliced produce. Use the now empty mixing bowl to combine the cucumber, fennel and radishes with the remaining dressing. Lightly toss. Scatter the vegetables over the lentil base. Tuck the tomato slices into any crevices. Top with slices of chile and scallions. Garnish with torn fennel fronds. Serve immediately.