I discovered the Boston Haymarket mere weeks after I moved to Boston in 2000, and for a couple years it was my very favorite place in the city. Friends from out of town would come to visit, and I would take them not to the Prudential Center, nor to Harvard Yard, nor to the Freedom Trail. No, I would drag them grocery shopping, to the Haymarket.
The Haymarket, you see, is the closest thing to a third world vegetable market that I have ever seen in this country. Vendors selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and fish set up shop on the sidewalk, throwing substandard or spoiling produce to the ground. Throngs of people representing every immigrant community in the metro area clog the sidewalks. Someone hoists a dead goat over his shoulders and heads to the Halal butchers, manoevering carefully through the crowds.
To be sure, the vendors at the Haymarket do not demonstrate the most diplomatic of behaviors. And the other customers have no problem elbowing and shoving the timid out of the way. The Haymarket has its own specific rules of behavior: Make up your mind quickly, keep your money accessible so that you don’t hold everyone up by digging around for your wallet in your backpack, and most importantly, never, ever touch the produce. It was always a gamble. Those peaches could be bruised and rotting; they could be hard and green. Ask the vendor, and you would be assured that they are perfect.
The prices made it worth the risk. Those peaches whether rotting, green, or ripe, were no more than 10 for a dollar. For a graduate student living on student loans, the Haymarket made the difference between feast and famine. Every Saturday morning, my roommate Anh and I would take the T to downtown and return only twenty dollars poorer, our arms aching with the effort of carrying a week’s worth of groceries for four people.
When we returned, we got to work cooking for the household for the week. Because we never set off with a grocery list, cooking the week’s food was always an improvisational affair. This salad was born one Saturday, early in the fall, from a random selection of what looked good, and what looked cheap. This lucky marriage of roasted peppers, olives, avocado, eggs, scallions and lots of parsley proved to be just right for lentil salad; the perfect vegetarian lunch or antipasto.
The following year, I moved into a different apartment, further from a T station. Anh graduated a year ahead of me and moved away; it no longer made sense to travel so far for cheap groceries. Eventually, I stopped going there at all, especially as my financial circumstances improved and piles of cheap but risky vegetables became less appealing. I miss the Haymarket, but even more, I miss the rhythm of our Saturday and the way our weekly excursions shaped our lives. The journey on the T, the time spent discussing our histories, food, and the cuisines our mothers taught us. I miss spending a whole day in the kitchen, talking and laughing. Now that I look back at it, I can’t believe I even had the time to devote a whole day of the week to food.
Unfortunately, I can’t foresee having that kind of time ever again, but I’m grateful for all I learned from my Saturday trips to the Haymarket: how to improvise; how to cook plaintains, taro, and various gourds; the taste of fresh dates and fresh tamarind. Most importantly, I have several recipes that have stayed with me over the years, that I still crave from time to time. Like this simple salad.
As you might expect from such auspicious beginnings, this salad lends itself easily to substitutions, additions and omissions. The avocado, however, is an essential ingredient. Even though there’s only one per cup of dry lentils, it’s rich decadence mitigates the austerity of the lentils.
I use Le Puy lentils, and I recommend you do too. They just taste better and have a better texture than ordinary green lentils. If you can’t find them, the green lentils will do.
1 c. Le Puy lentils
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and diced
1 bunch scallions, white parts and a bit of green chopped finely
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 c. olives, pitted and chopped
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced into quarters
packed 1/4 c. parsley, chopped
a squeeze lemon juice
red wine vinegar
freshly ground pepper
In a medium saucepan, cover lentils with 2 inches of water. Bring to boil, then salt and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and check for doneness. You want them soft and cooked through, not mushy and disintegrating. (Other kinds of lentils will take less time, keep an eye on them.) Drain and let sit in colander.
While the lentils are cooking and draining, take the opportunity to boil eggs, roast and peel bell pepper. Dice avocado and sprinkle with fresh lemon juice. Chop remaining ingredients. Combine lentils and vegetables. Mix gently, splash with red wine vinegar and a drizzled of olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt and pepper, and more olive oil and’or vinegar if needed. Top with hard boiled eggs and serve at room temperature.
If you are refridgerating leftovers, be sure to bring to room temperature before serving.