There’s so much to like in bean- and grain-based salads: the flavors and textures, the endless ways to improvise, the health benefits, and then the extremely lucrative cheap and easy factors. Anyone who’s even dappled in vegetarian cuisine must have a go-to recipe for one. Over the past few weeks I’ve been honing my own favorite wheat and bean salads, amping them up so they’re substantial enough to satisfy as a main dish.
One is inspired by the moujadarra I ate at a little Mediterranean restaurant near where I live. It was a fairly unattractive pile of bulgur and lentils that came topped with fried onions and a plop of yogurt. As I said, it wasn’t pretty, but I thought it was delicious in its simplicity and moreover, it was a launch pad for a similar, but more substantial salad. Here I’ve used wheat berries in favor of bulgur, cooked in the same pot with green lentils, and then a smattering of texturally contrasting vegetables.
Wheat berries are literally the “berries” of the wheat: the kernel that’s been stripped of its hull. If you’ve never cooked or tasted them before, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how plump, chewy, and robustly flavored they are. While they’re cooking, your kitchen might smell like you’ve got bread baking—the aroma is strong of wheat and yeast.
And as for vegetables, we’ve got smoky pan-fried eggplant, sweet grilled onions, barely wilted baby spinach, and then a good fresh crunch thanks to cucumber that’s added at the end. For variations, try adding sliced radishes, raisins, cubes of apple, dried cranberries, or diced dried apricots. You could add yogurt or cheese, such as feta or ricotta salata. And note that this is not a heavily dressed salad. Olive oil and a bit of vinegar are all that’s there as far as dressing goes, and I love the clean taste: the olive oil, slight tang of vinegar vinegar, and additional earthiness from the cumin allow the elements to fully shine. Be sure to get the salt right, though. As with any bean or grain salads, you have to taste frequently along the way.
One last note: This recipe is designed to be served warm—specifically so that the spinach is stirred into the warm lentils and wheat berries, which will cause it to wilt slightly. It’s fine to cook the lentils and wheat berries ahead of time. In that case, I’d assemble the salad like this: Place a pile of the bean-grain mixture on each plate, followed by a handful of spinach. Then divide the hot onions and eggplant right on top of the spinach, which will encourage it to wilt a bit. Add the cucumber and lemon—and serve!
Lentil & Wheat Berry Salad with Eggplant and Onions
Serves 4 as an entree
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 cup wheatberries, hard or soft
3/4 cup green lentils
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons sherry or red wine vinegar, divided
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 sweet yellow or white onion, sliced into 1/2-inch thick rings
3 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
1 Italian or Japanese eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
4 cups loosely packed baby spinach
1 cucumber, Kirby, English, conventional (or whatever you please)
Fresh lemon juice, to serve
1. Bring a pot of at least 2 quarts water to boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and then the wheat berries. Reduce the heat to medium-low—you’re looking for an active simmer—then cover the pot and cook for 50 minutes. Add the lentils to the pot, cover, and continue cooking for 30 to 40 minutes more, until the lentils are tender. Drain—reserving the liquid if possible; it’s a fortifying addition to stocks and soups—then return to the pot. Stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon of the vinegar, the remaining salt and the pepper, and then cover to keep hot.
2. In a skillet or sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over a medium-high flame. Add the cumin seeds, let them sizzle, and then the onions. Toss quickly and then let cook until tender, stirring and shaking the pan only occasionally; too much disruption will keep the attractive (and flavorful) char marks from developing. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant, and then transfer the onions to the pot with the lentils and wheatberries. Return the lid to the pot and return the skillet or sauté pan to the heat.
3. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the sauté pan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the eggplant. Cook until just tender and browned, stirring and scraping occasionally, 4 to 6 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the remaning vinegar and up to 2 tablespoons water if necessary, scraping up the browned bits. Once most of the liquid has boiled off, transfer to the pot with the lentils.
4. Add the spinach to the warm lentils and wheatberries. Toss until distributed and the spinach is slightly wilted. Divide among plates or transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with cucumber and a spritz of lemon juice and serve immediately.
Note: If you’re keeping leftovers, add the cucumber only to the portion that’s going to be eaten immediately. After the mixture is cooled completely, you can add them and refrigerate, or, as a take-to-work salad, for example, pack it separately and add to the salad just before serving.