08 June 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Slovak Lentil Salad

This recipe is not authentic. In fact, we're not even sure if there is such a thing as Slovak lentil salad - lentils are popular here, but are usually cooked in the ubiquitous soup, "sosovicova polievka." It's a hearty, meaty dish that would be more appealing if there were snow on the ground. We wanted something simpler and lighter for a summer evening at our campsite, and we wanted to forgo the soaking and lengthy cooking time that lentils can require. Also, after finding some great, local cheese at the market, it seemed like a good idea to incorporate it into the mixture along with a lot of fresh herbs and a good dose of paprika. We're not in Hungary yet, but paprika's appeal has definitely crossed the border into the northern forests.
This salad would work terrifically as an accompaniment to shrimp or chicken, but it served us well as a main course. When cooking with one burner on a tiny camp table, meals tend to be more satisfying the less complex they are.
Start with the lentils, which are much easier than anybody ever gives them credit for. Red lentils don't need to be soaked, and they have a great, delicate flavor that's a great base for a dish like this. The problem with them, often, is that they turn to mush when they're cooked - especially when they're split, like these were. The solution is simple: instead of cooking the lentils with a small, measured amount of water until they'd soaked it all up, we just dumped them into a large pot of boiling water and cooked them until the flesh was soft, but the individual beans were still whole. It takes about twelve minutes, which is not much time compared with traditional methods. It's kind of like making pasta. When they were tender and were really starting to float in the water, we strained out the liquid and ran the lentils under cold water to stop the cooking.
There's a strange store in this part of Slovakia. It's called "Sheep Cheese" (the name is in English), and they sell all kinds of sheep dairy products as well as a surprising variety of frozen fish. We're pretty sure it's some kind of cooperative, but the woman who helped us at the Bojnice location didn't dispense information or smiles very freely. We bought a big chunk of "bryndza," which we were curious about because of a similar cheese that we'd eaten a lot of in Ukraine (called "brynza"). The Slovak cheese was softer and less crumbly than its eastern cousin, and it didn't really suit the plan for the salad - still, the sharp, milky tang was great and it was nice to have on the table.
This is a more specifically local cheese, called "niva," which is made in these mountains around the town of Nitra. It's only mildly blue, but with strong cheesy flavors, and it's advanced age (six months in this case) makes it easy to break up and mix into a salad. Obviously, this would be pretty difficult to find in most supermarkets, but any crumbly blue cheese would work just as well - though a dryer sheep's cheese, like Roquefort, is probably more evocative of Slovakia.
In a large bowl, combine about a cup of chopped parsley and another half cup of basil, plus two large cloves of pasted garlic, half a red onion and the cheese. At another market we found wonderful, unsalted, raw pistachios - we broke them up a little and added them for a soft crunch and some nuttiness. Pine nuts could serve the same role, or one could use walnuts for even more texture. Add a good dose of olive oil and mix it all up until everything is evenly spaced - this is important because the lentils are dense and it might be hard to distribute some of the lighter elements in them without a lot of mixing, which would brake up the individual beans.
Not much salt needs to be added if you have a salty enough cheese, but it helps bring out flavor in the lentils. Real, Slovakian paprika is great if you can find the stuff, but don't expend a lot of energy looking for it. We added the spice to the lentils before mixing, and then dusted a little on top to make the dish look prettier.

Here's the recipe, though you could do this just about any old way:

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups red lentils (uncooked)
1/2 cup crumbled blue sheep's cheese
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped basil
1/3 cup chopped, raw pistachios
2 large garlic cloves, smushed
Half a red onion, minced
1 tablespoon paprika
Olive oil
Salt

- Rinse the lentils in cold water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with olive oil and generous salt. Add the lentils and cook until tender, about ten to twelve (to fifteen?) minutes. Strain out the liquid and run lentils under cold water until cool. Let drain.
- Combine the rest of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl with a generous pour of olive oil. Mix well so that all ingredients (namely garlic and paprika) are well distributed.
- Gently fold lentils into the herbs until everything looks well-mixed and pretty.
- Serve dusted with a little Paprika.

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