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Elements One ingredient, one dish

The humble lentil cannot brag of holding the Most Nutritious Bean title. Though it packs a wallop of protein and vitamins with practically no fat, it finishes second, behind the soybean.

Yet the lentil possesses something the soybean never will: flavor.

Its earthy essence gives it the ability to anchor dishes that range from spicy to soothing. The French use green du Puy lentils as a base for grilled salmon in a classic brasserie dish. Indians use red lentils as the foundation of dhal, the ubiquitous lentil soup. Rice and lentils, together with caramelized onions, kick off the Middle East soul food pilaf called mujadarra.

Modern eaters can enjoy the lentil for next to nothing, a dollar or two a pound. Lentils cook easily because of their lenslike shape, needing no presoaking. There's also less of the troublesome ingredients that make eating beans a potential gas attack for some tortured souls.

*Nutritional pyramid: Lentils were found in King Tutankhamen's tomb, and in the leftovers of a funeral feast in what is today's Turkey for a ruler from 2700 B.C. who may have inspired the legend of King Midas.

*Monumental flavor: Lentils were used as the packing peanuts of ancient times. When the Romans decided to take an Egyptian obelisk that today stands outside St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, it was shipped to Italy cushioned in the dried legumes.

*Priceless dish: The lentil has been a staple of civilization since Old Testament times. In fact, its hearty deliciousness was confirmed famously, some historians believe, by the willingness of the biblical Esau, son of Jacob, to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.

This recipe for lentil salad in Dijon vinaigrette calls for French green lentils, which hold their shape when cooked. It's inspired by Thomas Keller's "Bouchon." French green lentils are available locally at the Lexington Cooperative, 807 Elmwood Ave.

Lentil salad in Dijon vinaigrette

1 head garlic, split crosswise

3 bay leaves

3 sprigs thyme (optional)

1 cup French green lentils, checked for pebbles

1 onion, halved

1 carrot, halved

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced chives or scallion

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley

1/2 cup minced onion

Put lentils in pot with garlic, halved onion, carrot, bay leaves and thyme. Cover with two inches of water and bring to a boil, then immediately lower heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for 20-25 minutes, until lentils pop tenderly when squeezed. Pour lentils and liquid into shallow pan. Season with 1 tablespoon vinegar and salt. Discard vegetables, bay leaves and thyme. In a small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon vinegar and mustard; slowly whisk in oil. Drain lentils and toss with vinaigrette, chives and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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