Puy lentils are the king of pulses, their earthiness acting as a perfect foil for the richness of braised duck legs and venison, says Rose Prince. Serves four.
My mother was a cook ahead of her time. I must have been a teenager, some 40 years ago, when she made a dish of French Puy lentils for lunch.
I had never eaten a lentil in my life and was not even keen on beans and peas, so I struggled with the little brown discs that had been simmered with garlic, herbs and meat stock. Too earthy for a young palate, too… brown. Everyone else loved them, praising her innovation and resourcefulness.
Lentilles du Puy were unavailable in Britain at that time, but to the French they have long been monarchs among pulses, so to speak. Unlike their various cousins, including the many types of dal from Asia, Puy lentils do not cook to a mush and have a slight al dente bite to them.
The texture that I had found so strange at first is actually the characteristic that has made them such a popular feature on great menus. I came to love them, too, after that initial scepticism.
Later, living in London, I was lucky to eat at Marco Pierre White’s first restaurant, Harveys. He made lentils the star of one of his dishes, serving the humble pulse alongside a great tranche of goose foie gras. They were braised in red wine with garlic and thyme.
I later mined the recipe from him and began making them for my own dinners with friends. I found that their unpretentiousness made them the greatest foil for more extravagant companions and game is perhaps their best partner of all. Rich meat needs modest vegetables, goes my rule.
It is important to seek out the authentic lentils from Puy in central France. They have a PDO (protected designation of origin) and are grown in volcanic soil, which gives them a distinctive mineral flavour that I have never found in other green lentils.
Do pause, by the way, to admire their pretty, flint, grey-green marbled outer surface before they go in the pot.
Ingredients for braised lentils with duck and venison
For the lentil base:
- 250g Puy lentils
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 100ml red wine
- 2tbsp duck or goose fat
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 250g venison steak, cut into 3cm pieces
- 2 duck legs, skin removed and meat diced
- half a green pepper, thinly sliced
- 2tsp smoked paprika
- 1tsp dried thyme
- 500ml chicken or meat stock
- Chopped parsley, to serve
1. Braise the lentils in advance. You can serve them as a side to other game or meat dishes just as they are.
2. Put the braised lentils, garlic clove, thyme and red wine into a pan and add enough water to cover by 3cm. Bring to boiling point then turn down to a simmer for 25 to 30 minutes. Test them after 25 minutes. They will soften inside but the skins must be intact. Once cooked, tip the lentils into a bowl so they cool a little, preventing overcooking. Add salt to taste — never do this before cooking as it hardens the lentils.
3. To make the stew, place a casserole pan over a medium heat and add the duck fat. Add the onions and garlic and cook for two to three minutes until soft but not coloured. Add the meat and green pepper, then stir-fry for a minute or so. Sprinkle over the paprika and thyme, then pour in the stock. Bring to simmering point and cook for about one hour, until the meat is tender. Finally, stir in the lentils, reheat, scatter over some parsley, then serve.