I like beans all year round, but I especially appreciate them in winter. A plate of pinto beans studded with hunks of smoky, long-cooked bacon, for me, is a special feast. Or cannellini beans stewed with olive oil and herbs, or a steaming bowl of spicy black bean soup. I’m a lentil fan, too. I like them in nearly any guise, from any of the world’s cuisines.
Bright coral-hued red lentils are a favorite of mine; since they have the hulls removed, they cook quickly, so they are perfect for soups and for traditional Indian dal. Ordinary brown lentils, the kind you find in the supermarket, are also good for soup, though a brown lentil soup has a somewhat somber appearance.
Lentils from Castelluccio, in Umbria, Italy, are small and extremely tasty, and they keep their shape when cooked, though there are other excellent varieties found in the country’s different regions. Lentils and sausage are a common Italian theme, and, for the New Year, lentils are considered auspicious. Their coin-shaped form, it is said, invites prosperity.
In France, you find lentil salad on offer in nearly every charcuterie, to be eaten with slices of garlicky saucisson, perfectly combined for a light supper or an impromptu picnic.
These lentils might be the tiny, celebrated ones from Le Puy, in the Auvergne region. Lentilles du Puy, as they are called, are a beautiful mottled gray-green, and one of their virtues is keeping somewhat firm when cooked, and not collapsing into mush. (Of course, their primary virtue is their delicious flavor, verging on nutty.)
Lentils really shine in tandem with duck. Duck with lentils (combined in various ways) is considered delicious everyday fare for lunch or dinner in France. There are variations on the theme on restaurant menus and in home kitchens.
It might be a roasted duck breast, a braised duck leg or a crisp fried piece of duck confit, snuggled against a mound of juicy lentils cooked with onion, carrot, celery and thyme. The combination is almost magical, a truly serendipitous pairing.
For a holiday gathering, I bought small duck legs and braised them with red wine and aromatics, aiming for something similar to coq au vin. I wanted a deep-flavored saucy dish for a chilly winter evening.
I could have served a potato purée, a familiar accompaniment to this sort of stew, but, thankfully, I had lentils in the pantry.
The combination of tender braised duck, earthy lentils and an assortment of root vegetables was a winning one for a warming winter meal.
Wine-Braised Duck With Lentils and Winter Vegetables
Yield: 6 servings
Total time: 2 hours
For the duck:
6 whole duck legs, about 3 pounds
Salt and pepper
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced carrots
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
6 allspice berries
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups/1 quart chicken broth
1/2 cup dry red wine
For the lentils and vegetables:
1 cup small lentils, preferably French du Puy or Italian Castelluccio, picked over and rinsed
Salt and pepper
2 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, peeled and halved
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 pound celery root, peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons snipped chives
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Trim the duck legs, keeping the skin intact but removing any extraneous fat. Lay them in one layer on a baking sheet and season generously on both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Add duck legs, skin-side down, and cook until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. (The legs will render a fair amount of fat as they cook.) Flip and cook for about 5 minutes more, until lightly browned. Remove legs from pan and set aside.
3. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons fat from the pan (reserve it for another use). Place pan back on the stove over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery, salt lightly, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in bay leaf, thyme sprig, fennel seed and allspice. Continue to cook, stirring, until vegetable mixture is lightly browned, about 5 minutes more.
4. Add tomato paste and flour to vegetable mixture and stir well to coat. Cook for a minute or so, then add chicken broth and wine and bring to a simmer. Return duck legs to pan in one layer, skin-side up. (The liquid will not completely cover the legs.)
5. Cover pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until legs are tender when probed with the tip of a paring knife.
6. Cook the lentils: Pick over lentils for rocks and debris, then rinse well. Place in a saucepan with a good pinch of salt. Using the cloves, pin the bay leaf to the onion. Add to the pot along with thyme sprig. Cover lentils with water by about 2 inches and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered with lid ajar, until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Taste often so that lentils are neither under nor overcooked. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
7. When duck legs are cooked, remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 225 degrees. Transfer duck legs to an ovenproof serving dish, cover, and keep warm in the oven. Pour braising liquid into a saucepan. Spoon off any fat that rises to the surface and discard. Simmer braising liquid over medium heat until slightly thickened. Pour liquid over duck legs in the serving dish.
8. Meanwhile, cook the vegetables: Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add carrots, celery root and parsnips. Simmer until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes, then drain and toss gently with butter. Sprinkle with half the parsley and chives.
9. To serve, place a duck leg, some lentils and a spoonful of vegetables on each plate. Spoon sauce over duck leg and finish with more parsley and chives. Alternatively, pass everything on platters, family style.