It is no coincidence that a Frenchman uttered the eternal words, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” The French in a Flash translation: you are what you eat.
But I’m not sure if Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is entirely correct. I know, of course, that the French are the kings of philosophy, and I try in great earnest to never argue with a Frenchman, especially a philosophical one. But if Brillat-Savarin is correct, and we really are what we eat, then my father should look very different.
He should have shiny orange flesh, and gills, and bright, glassy eyes. He should have fins, and a tail strong enough to propel him against the current up the great waterfalls of the Northwest. He should come in farmed, wild, and Sockeye varieties. Because, Brillat-Savarin, my father eats salmon almost every single night. Maybe, somewhere under the sweater vests, corduroy pants, pink shirts, suspenders, and bifocals lurks a small set of fins, the ridges of gills, and a strong waterfall-fighting tail. Maybe if you were to open him up, his insides would be shiny and orange. But I seriously doubt it.
Or perhaps if you told Brillat-Savarin that you liked escargot, for example, he would tell you that you are a very slow-moving homebody, who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He might even call you sluggish. Maybe, similarly, if you told him that your favorite food is salmon, he would tell you that you possess against-all-odds tenacity and a healthy, glossy complexion, like my father.
Hmm. I took philosophy freshman year and vowed never to think that hard again. But if “I think therefore I am,” then I am therefore I think. (Also uttered by a Frenchman!) I just can’t help it. Good thing salmon is brain food. All philosophy aside, my father really does eat salmon every night, and one way the French traditionally prepare salmon is by pairing it with lentils.
It is a rustic, hearty, and beautiful meal—one that I cannot imagine being equaled in health by any other combination. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and lentils abound in iron, protein, amino acids, vitamin B1, folate, and fiber.
French lentils are different from the traditional brown lentils we find in our soup–the French kind, or lentils du Puy, are far smaller and darker, and retain their shape and texture with salmon-like vigor and tenacity, making them perfect as a side dish or salad.
For this recipe, I braise the lentils with carrots and shallots in wine and stock, until they are tender. Then I sauté the salmon until it is very crisp on both sides and just cooked through, with skin as perfect as a potato chip, and perch it atop the lentils. Over it all I dollop a two-mustard crème fraîche, with a tangy bite that melts down into the flakey folds of the fish, and pools creamy into the lentils below.
The combination of the legumes and the fish is buttery, but in a soul-warming way. And it’s cheap: it comes to about two or three dollars a person. Plate it with some marinated Provençal olives, half moons of lemon, and a sprig of rosemary or thyme, and dinner is served. It looks gourmet, but it is all so easy. Just follow this recipe, and I promise, it will all go swimmingly.
Who knows, maybe you’ll wake up the next morning with fins.
- 1 small carrot, diced as finely as possible
- 2 small shallots, diced as finely as possible
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
- Leaves of 2 stems fresh thyme
- Salt and pepper
- 1 1/4 cups lentils du Puy
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 3 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1 tablespoon freshly chopped flat leaf parsley
- 1 1/4 pounds salmon fillet, skin on, cut into 4 portions
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoon whole grain mustard
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Fresh thyme, lemon slices, and mixed olives for garnish
Begin by making the lentils. Over medium-low heat, sauté the carrots and shallot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season them with the thyme leaves, salt, and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes, until they are just sweating and soft and fragrant.
Add in the lentils, and season again with salt and pepper.
Increase the heat to high, and pour in the white wine. Stir, and cook until the wine is absorbed. Add the stock or water. Cover, and bring to a boil. Once the water boils, reduce the heat to low, keep covered, and cook for around 25 minutes, until the lentils are tender, but still have a good bite to them, and hold their shape. Drain out any excess liquid, and toss with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and the parsley. Adjust seasonings as needed.
For the salmon, season the fillets with salt and pepper on both sides, and paint the soft butter on the skin side of the salmon. Use all of it, even if it looks excessive. This is what makes the skin so crispy and perfect.
Heat a large sauté pan on medium heat, and add the 2 tablespoons olive oil. When it shimmers, carefully add the salmon, skin side down. It will splatter a bit, so drop the salmon into the pot slowly, and away from you. Cook for 5 minutes, then turn over, and cook for 3 minutes, or until you’ve achieved desired doneness.
While the salmon cooks, prepare the mustard crème fraîche. Stir together the crème fraîche, 2 mustards, and lemon zest, and season with salt and pepper.
To serve this dish, spoon a mound of the lentils on a plate, and perch the salmon on top. Spoon the crème fraîche over the hot fish, and let it melt into the filet and into the lentils. Serve more sauce alongside. Garnish with a few lemon slices, some fresh twigs of thyme, and a few mixed olives.
Salmon comes in so many different varieties these days. You use whichever you prefer. I, honestly, prefer to spend less, and avoid the Sockeye or wild in this preparation only because I think the farmed salmon has thicker, flakier flesh. But if you prefer wild salmon, by all means, go for it.
Crème fraîche can be hard to find, or expensive. If that is the case where you live, whip up a batch of your own by whisking together equal parts of sour cream and heavy cream. Cover the container, and allow it to sit in the fridge overnight. Voila! Crème fraîche.
I strongly recommend that you find lentils du Puy for this recipe. As you can see from the photograph, they are small, dark, and rounder than regular ol’ lentils, and they are so much firmer to the bite once they’re cooked. Other lentils just turn to mush. I buy mine in the bulk section at Whole Foods.