Christine Burns Rudalevige’s Spring Asparagus and Green Lentil Salad. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

My dad will be the first to tell you that I have very expensive taste. And my husband will second the notion even before my father finishes his sentence about my penchant for the good things in life. Frankly, it would surprise no one who’s shared responsibility for my financial solvency that I will pretty much pay any asking price for the first local asparagus when spring finally arrives here in Maine.

In my mind, it’s a rite of passage from the long, cold winter into the promise of warm summer days. It marks the move from stored root vegetables to fresh green ones grown above ground. It’s easily rationalized as one of those only-once-a-year kind of expenditures. But I make no apologies for this perennial purchase because I have my ways of making a good, pricy ingredient go a country mile in the kitchen.

If I am going to proudly pay $6 for a bunch of Maine’s inaugural spears of springtime splendor, then I simply must find a counterbalancing, more affordable ingredient to beef up the dish into a satisfying meal. The perfect match for exorbitant early asparagus is a cheap pot full of lentils. But I must be crystal clear here. I am not one to be mealy mouthed about the lentils I serve with my asparagus. I choose the chewier, earthy French green lentils, the ones from the minerally soiled region of Puy in central France if I can find them.

Lentils come in a lot of varieties, but the dark green ones from France are the best for this salad, according to Rudalevige.

Even if you import them, all pulses – peas, beans, favas and lentils, to name only a few in this prolific family of plants – are also sustainable agriculture powerhouses, says Dan Jason, owner of the British Columbia-based Salt Spring Seeds company, in his book, “The Power of Pulses.” These members of the legume family can snatch nitrogen out of the air and add it to the earth, he explains. “Because of this powerful ability to increase the fertility of the soil by simply growing it, they are the epitome of renewable energy,” Jason writes.

Lentils are traditionally grown in more temperate climates like India, Australia and Turkey. That said, Canada’s province of Saskatchewan produces about a third of the world’s lentils annually. The most important lentil-producing areas of the United States are the Palouse region of eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. Local lentil trials funded by the Maine Potato Board to see if they’d be a viable rotation crop showed that, while they certainly did contribute to the overall health of the soil, the prospect of growing them on a large scale may not be financially sustainable here because lentils are very susceptible to Ascochyta fungal blight and white mold, which drastically diminishes yields.

While it’s likely Mainers looking for lentils will have to have them trucked in, Jason points out that pulses require between 20 and 40 percent less fossil fuel to produce than conventionally raised meat does. And since they are a dried, pantry item, they require no refrigeration while being transported or stored.

Lentils add up nutritionally, too.  A 1/2-cup serving of cooked lentils generally contains 140 calories, 12 grams of protein, 0.5 gram of fat and 9 grams of fiber. A 3.5-ounce serving of 90 percent-lean ground beef contains 218 calories, 26 grams of protein, 11.8 grams of fat and no dietary fiber.

What sets French green lentils apart from their brown, red, yellow and run-of-the-mill green cousins is that they are about 30 percent smaller and much darker than standard green lentils. But the culinary kicker is that they hold their shape extremely well when they are cooked, so they are the ideal ingredient for salads, pilafs and lighter spring soups when you’d rather your pulses in the pot not turn to mush. They add to a mixed salad a nutty, peppery, earthy flavor.

To cook French green lentils, combine 1 cup of rinsed lentils with 2 1/2 cups water. I add a piece of seaweed to the pot, plus the leafless stalks of thyme, mint and/or rosemary, and set it over high heat. Once the pot boils, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until just tender, 20-25 minutes. This ratio makes about 2-1/2 cups of cooked lentils but easily doubles. Cooked green lentils will keep 4-5 days in the fridge or about three months in the freezer.

Ingredients for Spring Asparagus and Green Lentil Salad

Spring Asparagus and Green Lentil Salad

Don’t hate me because I got to the farmers market before you did to snag that first bunch of local asparagus. Set your alarm, beat me to it, and stop at the health food store on the way home to grab some green lentils from the bulk bin. Then invite me to lunch. This dressing makes twice as much as you will need for this salad, but it keeps in the fridge for up to two weeks and works equally well on a green salad as it does on this lentil one.

Serves 4

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups warm green lentils

6 radishes, thinly sliced

1 small shallot, thinly sliced

1/2 pound cooked asparagus spears

¼ cup mint leaves

¼ cup pistachios, roughly chopped

In a pint-sized mason jar, combine olive oil, lemon zest and juice, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Cover tightly, give the dressing a good shake, and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine lentils, radishes, shallot and half of the reserved dressing. Mix well.

Lay the asparagus spears on a serving plate. Top with lentil mixture. Scatter mint leaves and pistachios over the lentils and serve immediately.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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