Lentils & Green Olives

I just love these tiny lentils from the Abruzzi—the colors remind me of the beach-stone paintings of my painter friend Alan Magee. Or of the roof tiles in an ancient casa dei contadini. Just try to describe the colors—blue, green, brown, grey? No, I don’t think so. You’ll need an Orvis catalog copy writer to come up with words like linen, indigo, sea glass, pebble, and stone—just to do the lentils justice.

Beyond that of course they are delicious, whether on their own or serving as a platform for something else. My daughter the chef makes a coarse puree and serves it as the base for a grilled halibut steak, so all the garlicky, lemony, fishy juices dribble down into the lentils and add their flavors.

But I’m thinking now of toasts—that ridiculous word that has taken the place of toast and also of crostini and bruschetta. Somehow, toasts as a word bespeaks an elegance that plain toast never achieves. You’ll have toast for breakfast, perhaps, with butter and jam, but midday, at cocktail hour, as an intro to dinner, plain old breakfast toast morphs into toasts.

And as the season morphs from spring into summer (honestly, it’s due any day now), think of toasts as an ideal way to serve a casual, friendly supper on the porch or at the beach or even in an air-conditioned New York apartment where you just turn the temp down, pass out sweaters and shawls, and pretend you’re in the Hamptons for the evening.

Whatever and wherever, serve a selection of toasted marvels, with a good bunch of napkins for sopping up spilled juices. You could make richly flavored Tuscan chicken-liver crostini neri, along with a Roman bruschetta al pomodoro, ripe tomatoes accented with basil, and then this, which I call, with due deference to fashion, Toasts with Lentil-Green Olive Spread. Serving all three makes a complete meal in itself and most of it can be prepared well ahead. At the last minute, just toast thin slices of good crusty bread, rub with a cut clove of garlic, and dribble with your best extra-virgin. Then top with whatever tickles your fancy. But be sure to include the lentils!

This is from The Essential Mediterranean, my all-time favorite of all the books I’ve written. It will serve 6 to 8, and more if you add all the other toasts as well.

  •             8 ounces tiny lentils (a little over a cup of lentils)
  •             1 small whole onion, peeled
  •             1 whole garlic clove, peeled
  •             1 bay leaf
  •             ½ small whole dried red chili (more or less, to taste)
  •             24 plump green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  •             ½ cup very finely sliced celery
  •             ¼ cup very finely sliced shallots, scallions or green onions
  •             1 garlic clove, very finely minced
  •             ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to garnish the toasts
  •             1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
  •             Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  •             ½ teaspoon ground cumin (more or less, to taste)
  •             6 to 8 thin slices crusty, country-style bread

Rinse the lentils quickly in running water, then combine them with the whole onion, whole garlic, bay leaf and chili in a pot with water to cover to the depth of at least one inch. Set over medium high heat and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and simmer the lentils for 20 to 30 minutes, or until they are tender. (Add a little boiling water from time to time if necessary.) When done, drain the legumes, reserving about half a cup of their cooking liquid. Discard the onion, garlic, bayleaf and chili.

Remove about a third of the lentils and puree them in the bowl of a food processor, adding a little of their cooking liquid to help them reduce to a puree. (It doesn’t have to be super smooth.) Mix the puree with the whole lentils and stir in the olives, celery, shallots, garlic, oil and vinegar. Add salt, pepper and cumin to taste, then stir in more reserved liquid if necessary to thin the mixture to a spreadable consistency.

Toast the bread slices until crisp and brown (fantastic done over an open fire if you happen to be at the beach) immediately before serving. Dribble a little olive oil over each slice, then mound with the lentil mix and garnish with another drop or two of olive oil.

PS: The only trouble with these is they suffer from what Colman Andrews once called the “brown food problem.” Meaning, lots of the world’s most delicious food comes out seriously brown on the plate. I solved that, but only slightly, by garnishing each toast with a split green olive.




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