Lush, leafy and packed with al dente lentils, this generous dish makes a meal in itself or a filling side when a crowd needs feeding. Because it can be served warm-ish or at room temperature rather than piping hot, it’s a winner for dinner on nights when you’re not sure when people are going to show up after work (or music lessons, or footy practice), or when you’re entertaining. As Lesley Russell says: “The lentils can be cooked well beforehand and can be served hot, warm or room temperature—but never fridge cold.”
The luxe part of this dish is fresh buffalo mozzarella, most often found at delis and specialist foodstores but sometimes at supermarkets, too. There are imported Italian versions but also look out for mozzarella from Victorian producer Shaw River, which cheese expert Will Studd regards as being among Australia’s finest artisan cheeses. Made from the milk of Italian Riverine water buffalo—which is lower in cholesterol and higher in antioxidants than cow’s milk—the cheese is mild in flavour and has a silky interior. For best texture, it should be torn rather than sliced. It does cost more than regular mozzarella but is well worth trying; if you can’t find it, Lesley suggests substituting bocconcini, goat’s cheese or a good feta.
There is no substituting the lentils: you will need the small, deep green kind, as these hold their shape when cooked and have a nutty flavour that makes this dish sing. The original Le Puy lentils are from France but you will find Australian-grown examples as well, often packaged and sold as “fine green” or “French-style” lentils—you can read more in Up Close on page 60.
If you need to make this vegetarian, go with vegetable stock rather than chicken when cooking the lentils and try substituting roughly chopped smoked almonds for the pancetta.