Diet & Nutrition

Annabelle entertains: Pulse of desire

Annabelle White reveals the moment she fell in love with lentils… and became obsessed.
Lentils, legumes, beans and pulses

It all started in a glamorous hotel dining room in the heart of Vienna. Several years ago I was there on assignment, researching and writing a story about this historic city.

You need to fortify yourself for such an exercise, so it was serious breakfast time at the Hotel Topazz. My Australian counterparts were eating little glasses of lentils with a poached egg on top.

“Mmm… these are so good, who would think lentils for breakfast?” they moaned in ecstasy as I considered the hearty wurst (sausage) and organic egg option. Not wanting to look like a philistine at breakfast, I decided to also order the lentils, thinking, ‘Why not? How bad could it be?’

Mention ‘lentils’ and people think of earnest students sharing pot-luck suppers huddled around a single bar heater discussing Greenpeace. While a delicious source of protein, these pulses are often overlooked – and my attitude to them changed in that one mouthful.

These were sublime; rich and densely savoury, with full unctuous notes of bacon, a hint of sweetness and vinegar, and perfectly seasoned. When I cut through the poached egg on top, a cascade of bright yellow yolk spilled out, supporting this symphony of flavour. They tasted not only seriously good for you, but reassuringly comforting and tasty at the same time.

For the next three days I ordered the lentils and begged chef Valentin Siglreithmaier (seriously, that is his name) for the recipe. He had kindly given me a cake recipe on the first day (pre-lentils) and indignantly responded to my request with, “Vhat? Do you think I vill give you all of my recipes – are you crazy?”

I was now lentil obsessive. My sit-ins in the breakfast area and repeated requests were not being well received. He’d mutter, “How hard is it to cook lentils? It’s just like your grandmother.” There was no point explaining my grandmothers would have never even eaten lentils, let alone cooked them.

However, a glimmer of hope surfaced as I was departing the hotel. In a flourish, Valentin (perhaps excited the crazed lentil lady was leaving) bid me farewell. He said he knew a very good German chef who was doing great things in New Zealand. Using that absurd old Kiwi habit of saying, “What’s his name, I might know him?” I was rewarded with two wonderful words: “Volker Marecek”.

Throwing my hands in the air (powered by lentils) and jumping up, I said, “Mein Gott, I know the man – he is my friend! Vhat a small world!”

The chef was in disbelief… perhaps thinking so many lentils had affected my cognitive skills, but for me this was the break I needed.

Weeks passed, even months, and I kept asking Volker to help – could he get the recipe from Valentin for me? Eventually Valentin responded – in German.

Busy schedules aside, we finally met at The Langham Auckland where executive chef Volker had set up the prep for us to cook lentils together. Then, after some serious tasting, he translated the recipe.

The cooking tips flowed from this top chef: remember to cook the lentils gently; skim the surface; season at the end of cooking. Also, make the lentils ahead, then gently reheat and add the vinegar – to freshen the dish just before serving. I used the delicious orange vinegar made by Ohope’s Noel Davis.

Finally! I had the recipe! I have since tweaked and played with it, and today I share my version with you. And if anyone asks you where you learned how to make lentils in such a fabulous way, just say, “It was zee grandmothers.”

The perfect lentils

Serves 5-6 as a main and 15 as a side dish

Prep and cook time 1 hour

  • 500g green or black lentils

  • 50g butter

  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 350g finely diced root vegetables (try carrot, celery and celeriac)

  • 100g shallots, diced

  • 2 rashers bacon, chopped (optional)

  • 50ml red wine

  • 100ml port

  • 1½-2 litres chicken stock

  • 1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, ½ tsp white peppercorns and ½ tsp whole allspice wrapped and tied in muslin)

  • Raspberry (or orange) vinegar, to taste

  • A little knob of butter

  1. Soak lentils overnight in cold water (no salt). Discard this water.

  2. Heat butter and oil and sweat off root vegetables, shallots and bacon for 2-3 minutes. Add lentils and cook on low for 2-3 minutes until onions are translucent.

  3. Add wine and port and reduce until pan is almost dry. Add 1½ litres of stock and the bouquet garni and cook on low for 30-40 minutes, adding more stock as needed.

  4. When soft, blitz slightly with stick blender but leave some lentils whole for texture.

  5. Add vinegar, season, then add a little butter to make the mix extra creamy.

Words by: Annabelle White

Photos: Getty Images

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