Deborah Madison's Genius Technique for Better, Brighter Lentil Salads

September 30, 2015

Every week, Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Why you should be treating your lentil salads more like soup. (And what this recipe has to do with President Kennedy.)

Claiming to make vegetable stock and lentil salad in one fell swoop sounds like the mark of an infomercial, or what happens when the pages of a cookbook get stuck together.

It's neither—rather, it's the genius work of Deborah Madison: cookbook author, demystifier of both vegetable and vegetarian cooking, and the creator of brighter, more purposeful lentil salads for all of us.     

As Madison shows us, by chopping up the vegetables finely, they cook just as quickly as the lentils do (roughly 20 minutes), creating a quick vegetable stock without turning to mush. This means they also get to stay put and become part of the salad. It sounds so obvious—why don't we always do this?

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This is why: We usually discard the vegetables from making stock as used-up byproducts because we've simmered them to death, even in economical all-in-one recipes like classic chicken soup. They've given all they have to give: their flavors wrung into the broth, any admirable texture consumed in the process.

But with smaller vegetable bits and a quicker cooking time, every scrap can be put to use and nothing goes to waste. (In fact, their usefulness is threefold, since you also save the resulting broth to make soup another day!)

But more impressive than even Madison's cooking efficiency is the overall effect of this salad, vibrant and assertive. That sturdy base of lentils, carrots, and alliums becomes a springboard for rowdier flavors: the punch of roasted red peppers and crumbled feta, a paprika- and lemon-spiked vinaigrette, swells of fresh herbs.

It's a transitional salad for the season, the bridge from lighter scatterings of lentils with radishes and arugula to richer stews and chilis. And I'm going to plant my flag that chips and dips are not perfect tailgate food—this is. The salad's flavors get better over time sitting at room temp, and it won't send your blood sugar plummeting just as you finish your second beer.

"This is a salad I used to serve at Greens," the pioneering farm-driven restaurant where Madison was the founding chef, "with some trepidation, because at that time vegetarian food was still seen as lentils, lettuce, and stodginess," she wrote to me.

"I wanted a salad that was brighter somehow, and this was it. It seemed to work, because this comment came back from the dining room to the kitchen: 'You’ve done for lentils what Kennedy did for the presidency!'"

"This extravagant comparison might be lost on those who weren't around when Kennedy became president and brought with him a new excitement and glamour to the White House, but it meant a lot to me at that time and it still makes me smile."

Deborah Madison's Lentil Salad with Mint, Roasted Peppers, and Feta Cheese

Adapted slightly from The Greens Cookbook (Bantam Books, 1987)

Serves 6 to 8

1 1/2 cups small French lentils (Puy or beluga)
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced into 1/8-inch squares
1/2 small onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 medium red bell peppers
2 teaspoons chopped mint
3 tablespoons chopped mixed herbs: parsley, marjoram or cilantro, thyme
Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar, to taste
8 ounces feta cheese
Olive oil, for garnish

Lemon vinaigrette:

1 large lemon
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 to 8 tablespoons olive oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Food52er WHB for this one!

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • whiskito
  • Peter Pehrson
    Peter Pehrson
  • Stubor
  • Lindsay-Jean Hard
    Lindsay-Jean Hard
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


whiskito October 20, 2015
In my kitchen, tiny diced carrots would be considered very overcooked after the 20+ minutes that it takes lentils to cook. I prefer Dorie Greenspan's method of cooking the veggies in big chunks, then fishing them out and dicing when everything is cooked and stirring them back in. She suggests sticking a clove or two in the whole onion, which pairs perfectly with meaty French lentils.
Peter P. October 5, 2015
This is a ridiculous connection (i.e., none at all) to President Kennedy. It's misleading and makes you look rather silly.
Stubor October 5, 2015
I hope you don't consider this heresy, but I would like to try this with blackeyed peas.
Lindsay-Jean H. September 30, 2015
I am ready to be proven wrong about perfect tailgating food.