This post originally appeared on Food52.
If we're not careful, the characteristics that make a salad sturdy and good for transport can also make it awfully dull. See: the picnic salad, typically mayo plus something pale and relatively durable—chicken, potato, pasta, tuna, egg. All are comforts, but none is likely to fire us up for another potato sack race—or (in the sturdy salad's more typical habitat, the desk lunch) another TPS report.
Peter Miller, Seattle bookstore owner and author of Lunch at the Shop, has all sorts of ideas for more inspiring portable lunches; this lentil salad is just one. With only the most basic of ingredients and tools, he manages to excise everything ho-hum about the genre.
He starts with lentils, which are more substantial and fortifying than starchier bases, more vegetarian-friendly than other proteins (and, in many cases, quicker-cooking). Lentil salads are generally good for carting around too—they're all but indestructible. But they're usually dressed neatly with dressings that sink in, tossed with chopped herbs or other loose parts. "Lentils can be a little woolen—a parsley sauce, or a slice of avocado or cooked beet can loosen it all," he wrote to me.
Instead, to bind, he has—importantly—moved on from mayo to more refreshing, more currentGreek yogurt, thinned with a bit of olive oil. Then there are the ragged strips of herbs and spinach; the nubby crunch of toasted nuts and zip of lemon; and salty Parmesan, laid on top in sheets.
More: Listen to our recent podcast with Peter Miller to learn more about lunch—and a creation he calls Pizza Soup.
The salad is dressed in a very particular order: First, he lets the lemon sink in and spark the basil and garlic, then he folds in a very generous blop of yogurt that hugs every lentil and makes the disparate parts whole—and scoopable. Next comes a gloss of olive oil, a loosening agent. Then, he doctors the seasoning, to taste. Miller's headnote calls the salad a nod to pesto, but I think it's an even more emphatic one to tzatziki.
Could you just mix it all together and dress it like a normal salad? Sure. But you won't have the contemplative Peter Miller-esque encounter you otherwise would, and you won't be able to adjust each part as you go. It's good to know you can do this in stages, because next time you might decide to squeeze in lime juice instead, or shake in some ground cumin or coriander or chile on a whim.
It's not just his ingredient choices that are genius, it's Miller's very philosophy of lunch. His insistence on it, and his clever methods for putting a civilized meal on the table even in an office that has only a toaster oven. The way he won't take no for an answer when someone is politely turning down an offer of food, as Amanda tried to do when we hosted him for lunch at our office.
And it's in how he takes this make-ahead salad to work in an old yogurt container and prescribes adjusting the seasoning and dressing it up at the office, with more lemon and attractive peels of cheese. As Miller writes, "With a bit of planning, imagination, and humor, there will be no talk about leftovers. But everyone will talk about lunch."
Adapted slightly from Lunch at the Shop: The Art and Practice of the Midday Meal (Harry N. Abrams, 2014)
1/2 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts
2 cups baby spinach
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 cup cooked lentils (small green Puy, or any other that will hold its shape)
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup Greek yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
At the office:
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper