So this lovely little bunch of mint arrived in my box, two boxes ago. And then sat in my fridge for over a week because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. Well, I did know what I wanted to do with it, but it was impossible. I wanted to make a yummy lentil salad with feta and mint, only the lentils and the feta are so heavy that they need a light, moist addition like tomato or cucumber. But it is not the season for tomatoes and cucumbers, and I get so much produce in my box that I’m really trying not to buy extra, save for onions, garlic, and lemons. So I pondered, and the mint sat in my crisper (which apparently has remarkable powers of crisping, lucky for indecisive me). Finally I decided to improvise and see what happened, and walked over to my local cheese shop for some feta.
“Do you carry local feta?,” I asked my neighborhood cheesemonger, hoping he might even carry feta from one of the local cheese companies I’ve been researching that seem to treat their animals humanely.
“Why would I do that?,” he almost sneered back to me. Seriously. I am not exaggerating for dramatic effect here. “The best feta is made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep and goat.”
I nodded back at him. I’m not cheese-illiterate, I know this. Impatiently he continued. “No sheep around here.”
“What about goat’s milk feta?,” I asked, politely, though perhaps through slightly gritted teeth.
“There is no feta from around here that is of the quality we would carry in this shop,” was basically the patronizing response. (I’m paraphrasing a little because by now I had that kind of shame-induced adrenaline rush that makes it hard to remember things later.) A lengthy discourse on French cheese, how I should not be worried because all French farmers treat their animals well, and an underlying total disregard for any reason why I want might to favor local products followed.
The whole time he was talking I was saying to myself, “I can’t wait to get out of here!” but somehow, towards the end of my lesson, I found myself buying a small piece of French feta. It was either that or forgo the feta and head back to square one with the mint, or get in the car and drive to another store, and I was exhausted.
This was my first foray into a local/sustainable/humane commitment in my cheese buying. Cheese is, at this point in my life, a real staple food for me, both as an anchor in my cooking and as a source of comfort and satiety. But I’m also basically at the point where I don’t feel right buying cheese anymore unless I am putting some serious consideration into the conditions it comes from.
It was helpful to get a taste of what I may be up against – it kind of blows my mind that there’s anyone left in San Francisco who is both into food and at the same time doesn’t give a crap about sourcing locally. My cheesemonger’s rant about how he refuses to eat anything that doesn’t taste good (with the implication that any kinds of limits, like trying to eat local or humane food, will interfere with his RIGHT to tasty food) reminded me so much of Anthony Bourdain’s vitriolic attack on vegetarians in his book, Kitchen Confidential. When I first read Kitchen Confidential I felt the same kind of shame and confusion I felt in the cheese shop today, like it was somehow contradictory and even absurd for me to love food, to adore it so passionately, while at the same time having principles that might put any kind of limits on my eating.
Happily for me, the folks over at Hezbollah Tofu, my new favoritest project in the world EVER (check out their site if you’ve never seen it) have come up with a funny, “foodie,” not-bitter-but-grounded response to Bourdain (or “Tony” as they call him), which in turn inspires me to try to stay a little more grounded in interactions like the one I had today.
ANYWAYS, in case you’re really just here for the lentils, I come at last to the very happy conclusion to my confusing day. I reviewed what I had in my box to find an acceptable tomato substitute and decided to try oranges. Which turn out to be delicious in a lentil-mint-feta salad. The recipe is below.
Lentil Salad with Feta, Mint, and Orange
I did end up liking the salad with orange, but I think I would still prefer tomato and/or cucumber, so if these are in season or you have them on hand, you could substitute them for the orange in this recipe. This recipe serves two generously.
1 C. French lentils (Puy lentils)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
1-2 bay leaves
1/4 C. finely chopped red onion
1/2 C. chopped mint
1/4 tsp. sugar
1 orange, peeled and chopped
5 oz. feta (or to your tastes)
For the vinaigrette:
1/6 C. red wine vinegar (that’s 2 T. + 2 tsp.)
1/8 tsp. salt
1/3 C. olive oil
1 T. mustard
Fresh ground black pepper
Simmer the lentils in a pot with 2 1/2 cups of water and the garlic cloves, bay leaves, and 1/2 tsp. of salt until tender, about 25 minutes. Don’t let them overcook! (You may have read that lentils and beans take longer to cook if you add salt to their cooking water, but it’s really important to let the salt get into the lentils or they will be too bland. They don’t take that long to cook, even with the salt!) The lentils will be delicate and apt to get mushy until they are cool, so drain any excess water carefully, remove the garlic and bay leaves, and then leave them to cool.
Make the vinaigrette: Combine the salt and vinegar and whisk until the salt dissolves. Pour the olive oil in in a stream, whisking constantly. Whisk in mustard and then add freshly ground pepper to taste.
Stir vinaigrette, mint, red onion, and orange into cooled lentils. Stir in sugar. (You can omit the sugar, but it really helps bring out the flavor of the mint.) At this point you should taste for seasoning and add any additional pepper, sugar, and/or vinaigrette that you might need, because it is important not to overstir the feta. But keep in mind that the feta may be quite salty! So don’t add additional salt until after the feta has been added. The feta can be crumbled or cubed, then gently folded into the lentils. Garnish with mint sprigs and serve.