I’ve taken a lot of psychology courses over the years. Sensation and Perception was never one of my favorites, but I do remember that smell is the sense that is most strongly linked with memories. Or maybe I learned that in fourth grade science. Perhaps if I sniffed something that smells like Lecture Hall 3, I’d remember something more substantial from that class….
I know, that’s kind of an odd opening for a food entry. But I have my reasons.
Last weekend, I decided to make a batch (yes, a batch) of lentil and couscous salad. When I plated it and lifted the first forkful, I suddenly felt optimistic, energized, and light. Suddenly, it felt like summer. Sure, with fresh basil and tomatoes, this salad has summery flavors and smells. But really, this salad transported me back to the summer of 2010, when I made it for the first, and many more, times.
That was an exciting summer. I was leaving the job I’d had for three years and getting ready to go back to school. Nick and I were recently engaged and planning our wedding. As I ate that salad last weekend, I relived the anticipation of classes and excitement of the first meetings with my advisor, looking through stacks of bridal magazines, and eating lunch in what was quite possibly the nicest office I will ever get to call mine.
If there’s going to be a food that I’ve eaten so much that it defines a period of my life, I’m glad it’s a salad. I don’t think I’d be writing this if it was going to be, “I had KFC for lunch the other day and it took me back to that summer during college when I was dating that carpenter with the jeep….”*
This salad is loosely based on a recipe from Epicurious for Mediterranean Couscous and Lentil Salad. Basically, they both have lentils and couscous, and the same dressing. But I like to serve the lentil-couscous mixture over baby spinach or lettuce, and top it with cherry tomatoes and sliced basil, rather than tossing everything together. I don’t use feta. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt, but it’s definitely not necessary. You can keep the lentil salad in the fridge for a couple days and assemble the rest (i.e., greens, tomatoes, basil) just before eating, or when packing your lunch in the morning. By itself, the lentil and couscous mixture is a bit overdressed, but once you add in the lettuce and tomatoes, it all works out quite nicely.
I’m a fan of using Israeli couscous (I believe sometimes called “pearl couscous”). It’s bigger and chewier, and I like that the shape and size are almost identical to the lentils. This time I used a combination of farro and couscous. I could claim it was to boost the nutritional value a bit (and I’m sure it does), but really, I just didn’t have much couscous in my pantry. You could use just farro, but I recommend a combination, or skip the farro and just use couscous. Why? Well, if you really want to know my rationale, it’s purely an aesthetic thing. Since the couscous is a brighter white, it provides more contrast against the dark lentils. You can thank my high school art teacher for that.
One more thing. I use packaged steamed lentils from Trader Joe’s. Because as you might recall, I don’t have the best luck with cooking dried legumes. But feel free to cook your own, and then bask in the satisfaction that you took this recipe one step further than me.
*Okay, if I ever actually ate KFC, it probably would trigger such flashbacks. Except it would take me back to those three years during college. Hey, we all make bad decisions during college, right? Oh, and for the record, I have no problem with carpenters. Just with ones who take me to KFC for dinner.
Summer Salad with Lentils, Farro, and Israeli Couscous
1 cup of cooked lentils (preferably the fancy French lentilles du Puy)
1 cup uncooked Israeli couscous, or 1/2 cup couscous and 1/2 cup farro
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove, pressed or mashed
Cook couscous and/or farro according to package directions. Transfer to bowl, stir in 1 tbsp olive oil and let cool completely.
Stir one tbsp red wine vinegar in with the lentils.
Whisk together remaining 2 tbsp red wine vinegar, 3 tbsp olive oil, and garlic.
In a large bowl, mix together lentils, couscous/farro mixture, and dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill, preferably for three hours, but if you didn’t think about making this ahead of time and you’re really hungry for lunch, I won’t judge you for chilling it for only thirty minutes. Or not at all.
You can keep this covered in the fridge for a couple days. To serve, place a couple handfuls of the greens of your choice in a bowl and spoon lentil mixture on top (I’ve found it makes about three servings, but it really depends on your preferred greens-to-lentils and grains-ratio). Top with halved cherry tomatoes and some sliced fresh basil.