the evolution of a dish

One of my favorite dishes to make when the crisper is low comes from a woman who says that she used to serve it in a bistro she worked at in France. She titles it Nid de lentilles a l’echalotte et son petit aux lardons, or Nest of shalotty lentils with their baby and bits of bacon. In the original recipe, lentils, cooked through and then simmered with shallots cooked in bacon fat, dry vermouth, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and the chopped bacon, form the nest. The nest’s baby is a cold, soft-poached egg, and the whole is garnished with cross-shaped bits of fresh tomato. Several transformations have beset this recipe on its way to becoming a staple in my kitchen.

The first thing to go was the idea of a cold, soft-cooked egg. I love a runny yolk as much as anyone, but I’m with the recipe author’s North American husband—make that thing hot, please. Even so, runny yolks often reject my love, responding to my attentions by upsetting my stomach. So my household usually dispenses with the egg altogether. With regret.

The tomatoes have suffered another transformation. I wouldn’t use anything but fresh, in-season tomatoes for that kind of garnish. And even when tomatoes are in season, I don’t think of them for this dish. They’re not the star here, and at the height of tomato season, it always never seems like good tomatoes should settle for a supporting role. And so we rely on canned or frozen tomatoes—which don’t come in cross-shaped segments. In fact, there’s no way to make any garnish but an ugly one out of preserved tomatoes. My solution is to add canned tomatoes to the vermouth while the lentils simmer. It makes for a more tomato-y dish—in fact, it often makes for a garlickier dish, or one with more green chiles, depending on what kind of canned tomatoes we have on hand. And we always have them on hand—with my Tex-Mex background and J-P’s childhood in New Jersey, our kitchen relies on canned tomatoes.

And, of course, it’s rare that we have shallots in the pantry—but onions are always there, so they usually fill the main allium role in this dish. Add a little long-grain white rice to bulk things up, especially with the egg out of the picture, et voilà. Nid de lentilles et oignons avec des tomates et lardons au riz.

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