I am pretty sure we used either Toulouse sausage or duck confit in our petit salé aux lentilles when I was living at Le Montagnet, a chateau in the Southwest of France. The official recipe, which probably hails from somewhere in the region of Castelnaudary, is usually made with pork shoulder and bits of lardons (fatback, more or less, though Pancetta rdoes the trick). We leaned toward confit of duck because there was always some on hand. We raised our own ducks there for foie gras, and the duck confit was the best I ever had. And also, we used confit because we were cheap. “We” at the time usually consisted of myself and Nadir, a Kabyle who had inveigled his way into permanent residency in France by flying low, under the radar. Duck was our chicken. Plentiful, and a source of inspiration for countless recipes.
Nadir never spoke French half way as well as I did, to be honest, but he always knew about the crazy little dishes eaten by the farmers and laborers inhabiting the rugged, forested terrain surrounding the chateau, stretching from Les Montagnes Noires (The Black Mountains, which amble from the Pyrannees to the Massive Central) up through Perigord. When “we” were together as a “we,” and making food, it was usually because we had been abandoned, told to fend for ourselves for the night, when the family that resided at the chateaux had plans. So as evening was creeping in long lazy purple shadows across the sheep pastures, I would be somewhere sanding oak planks out in the outlying farm buildings, or at some distant and unheated reach of the house fitting tongue into groove of the ancient oak slats covering the ground floor (everything there was made out of ancient coeur de chêne (heart of oak), the incomparably hard timber harvested from the mountains when the land was first settled some hundreds of years ago).
Nadir, an Arab, had no compunction about various displays that might strike a Western man as a bit unnerving. Holding hands was usual when on a walk together. He would sit down beside you and put his arm around you, and just smile. But the apron was always especially odd on him. Left alone for a moment, he would don an apron and set about to cook. And petit salé was a favorite. So from far away through the deepening dusk I would hear him call: “Mark, à table! Cauchemar, viens-ici!” Mark, dinnertime. Nightmare, come! (I had named the family dog, a hoary old bag of scruff that wheezed horribly as it padded through the gloomy halls, Cauchemar–French for nightmare–in response to the irrational and unstinting adoration piled inexplicably on the miserrable beast by the children of the house.) Then Nadir would round the corner, floral print apron tied jauntily around his waist, heavy wooden spoon in his hand, giant perpetual grin on his face. And we would return to the kitchen to take supper together, two men from opposite ends of the universe bonded by work, a reverence for our time on this land, and meals together.
Lentils are among the most basic of foods, but you need some technique to make them taste right. My technique consists of this: do not salt the water while you cook them, as salt makes them tough; and use plenty of duck fat to finish them off. Sure, you can use a nice duck stock to help out, but the chief thing is no salt while cooking. Everything comes to life with the sprinkle of fleur de sel de Guerande or fleur de sel de l’Ile de Noirmoutier French sea salt that finishes it.
Recipe for Petit Sale aux Lentille Style Nadir
Preparation time: about 90 minutes.
2 or 3 pieces confit of duck leg and thigh
1oz of backfat or pancetta, finely cubed
1/4 cup duck fat (this can be obtained by scraping the fat from the top of the confit container)
Water, duck stock, or lamb stock to cover (about 2 or 3 cups)
Fleur de sel
In an stove top-proof, oven-proof, heavy pot such as a Le Creuset, blanch the backfat for 10 minutes in simmering water. Drain water, heat the pan, and sautee the back fat until golden. Set aside.
Cook your lentils as follows in the heavy pot: Pick through the beans, removing any rocks or misshapen lentils. Rinse and drain. Cover with cold water or unsalted duck or (my favorite) lamb stock. Cover and boil for 2 minutes. Then simmer until tender, usually about 30 to 45 minutes. Check frequently to avoid over-cooking.
Preheat oven to 300 F. Add the duck fat to the lentils. With your fingers, pull the meat off the bones into nice small bits and stir into the duck fattened lentils, gently, so as to not mush the lentils. Add the browned backfat. If the water/stock has boiled off, add another cup. Place in oven for 45 minutes to a hour, allowing a light duck-fat crust to form on the surface. It may be a good idea to check on it once about 30 minutes to make sure there is still some liquid in the lentils. Dish it onto plates alongside a nice vinegary green salad, thick crusts of bread, plenty of hearty red wine (preferrably from the Rhone, Corbiere, Minervois, or my favorite, Fitou). Sprinkle lightly with feur de sel. Serve.
Hats of Nadir, my old friend.