My culinary quest: Hunting the elusive black beluga lentil
By Robert Silk
Black beluga lentils. Some culinary aficionados likely have heard of them, but I certainly hadn’t. Nevertheless, a couple of nights before my planned virtual cooking lesson with Singapore Airlines’ global head of food and beverage, Antony McNeil, I found myself futilely scouring the aisles of Whole Foods in search of this mystery bean.
Could a red lentil serve as suitable replacement, I began to wonder in frustration. What about organic black beans?
Finally, a store clerk took pity on me and guided me to the bulk section. Payday. A whole bin of black lentils with a caviar-like appearance sat before me. I was armed with my last essential ingredient of a planned three-course French/Mediterranean-themed meal.
Singapore Airlines has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest airlines in the world when it comes to service. For our lesson, McNeil had chosen a three-course offering that is part of the carrier’s wellness program. For the main, I’d be preparing an herb-roasted chicken breast. The braised black beluga lentils, a dish that also includes a potpourri of diced vegetables along with wine and chicken stock, was to be one of the sides. The other side was roasted, caramelized cherry tomatoes, flavored with onions, garlic, oregano, a healthy dose of balsamic vinegar and soft dark brown sugar for color and to create the caramelization.
Singapore developed the meal ahead of the 2018 relaunch of service between Newark and Singapore, a 19-hour flight that is to date the longest regularly scheduled route to be served by an airline.
Herb roasted chicken breast
- 2 4 oz chicken breasts, skin on
- 1 clove of garlic, minced or finely chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, roughly chopped
- 2 oz live oil
- 1 oz fresh butter
- Salt and pepper
- Mix 1 oz olive oil, thyme and garlic together into a baking tray.
- Add chicken, skin side down, into marinade.
- Chill 3-4 hours, then turn chicken skin side up, and marinade another 3-4 hours. (Best if you do this overnight.)
- Remove chicken from chiller about 30 minutes before cooking.
- Preheat oven to 180 °C/360 °F.
- Heat non-stick frying pan on low heat 2-3 minutes ahead of cooking.
- Season the chicken with salt and fresh ground pepper.
- Add the butter and remaining 1 oz olive oil to the pan along with the marinade, allow butter to melt and foam.
- Add chicken breasts to the pan, skin side down first. You should hear the sizzle!
- Increase the heat to medium. Baste the chicken, while cooking with the butter and marinade in pan.
- Cook chicken breasts skin side down 4-5 minutes, then turn breasts over. Skin should be golden in color.
- Repeat another 2-3 minutes. Then, place the chicken in the oven and finish cooking for 6-8 minutes.
- Remove pan from the oven.
- Set aside, covering with aluminum foil.
- Allow to rest 5-10 minutes before serving.
The dish, McNeil explained, was purposefully designed with easy-on-the stomach ingredients such as chicken, vegetables and olive oil so that flyers wouldn’t feel bloated over the course of the long flight.
Singapore serves the dish in all cabin classes, though portion sizes, cuts of meat and plating vary.
For two generous hours, from halfway around the world, McNeil took me through the cooking process.
Braised black beluga lentils
- 2 oz black beluga lentils (can substitute with green, or puy, lentils)
- 15 oz water
- 1sp salt
- 2 fl oz olive oil
- 1 oz carrots, finely diced (1/4 inch)
- 1oz celery, finely diced (1/4 inch)
- 1 oz onion, finely diced (1/4 inch)
- 1 oz fennel, finely diced (1/4 inch)
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 1 oz streaky bacon, sliced (1/4 inch)
- 1fl oz white wine (optional)
- 4 fl oz chicken stock (fresh or chicken boullion cube)
- 1 Tbsp flat leaf parsley, sliced or roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
(Can cook the day before to speed up the recipe process.)
- Add the salt, lentils and cold water to saucepan, bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat to medium and simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes, or until "al dente."
- Place in a colander to drain and rinse under cold water and drain again. Set aside.
- Preheat a saucepan on low heat, then add olive oil and all diced vegetables.
- Allow the vegetables to cook, while stirring, until soft.
- When vegetables have become soft, add in the sliced streaky bacon.
- Cook until bacon is soft, and lightly caramelized.
- Add the precooked lentils into the vegetable mix, stirring mixture to combine well.
- Add white wine (optional) and cook until wine is fully evaporated.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Add chopped parsley and serve.
- Optional: Add in half an oz of butter to enrich the lentil mix.
I learned the value of sauteing chicken breasts on the stove in order to give the chicken a brown look and a crunchy texture, before putting it in the oven to get an overall even cook.
I also learned about cutting small, x-shaped slits in cherry tomatoes so that their shapes will stay intact as they cook.
Most importantly, I learned that I haven’t been cooking with enough butter through the years. Not even close.
Later — after carefully plating the dish, with the chicken on top of a bed of the braised beluga lentils and a few tomatoes on top of the chicken — the best part arrived. I sampled a meal that I quickly decided is the best I’ve prepared during the two-plus years I’ve lived in my current apartment.
Tastiest of all were the tomatoes, which I could I do no better than to characterize as, “really flavorful.” McNeil, though, helped me to understand it in more technical terms, noting that I was experiencing the acid of the vinegar blending with the brown sugar, enhanced by the gut-healthy flavors of onion and garlic.
He described the tomatoes as having, “a beautiful mouthfeel.”
“The important thing is that you like it,” he added.
I agreed. Another reason to hop a flight to Singapore once Covid restrictions are relegated to memory.
Roasted caramelized vine tomatoes
- 1oz red onion, finely sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 fl oz olive oil
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 4 fl oz balsamic vinegar
- 2 oz raw brown sugar, muscovado or soft dark brown
- 2 fl oz water
- 1 stem cherry tomatoes
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Cut a small X into the base of the tomatoes and set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the sliced onion, dried oregano and garlic.
- Cook on low heat until onion is soft. Add the cut vine tomatoes into the pan.
- Add the balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and water to onion mix.
- Bring the mix to a boil, then simmer 3-5 minutes on medium heat.
- While simmering, baste the tomatoes with the vinegar syrup.
- Continue to cook until the tomatoes are soft, and the syrup is rich and caramelized.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.