Ordinary green or brown lentils may be used if you cannot find the Puy variety, although more care needs to be taken to make sure that the lentils do not turn any more mushy than necessary. Cognac would be nice as well, I'm sure, as the author from whom I've adapted this recipe for vegetarians would suggest. Well, she has a lot more money than I and possibly you do, but a decent affordable French brandy like St-Rémy VSOP will do just as nicely for us mere mortals.
1 1/4 cup Puy lentils
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1 1/2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small celery stalk, diced
1-inch sprig of fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 plum tomatoes, chopped and crushed
1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
fresh ground black pepper
4 1/2-inch slices dense bread, crust removed and cut into small squares
1/2 cup cream
pinch of ground cloves
Rinse the lentils under cold running water and soak in a bowl of cold water for 1/2 hour. Drain and set aside.
Toast the saffron threads in a small pan over medium-low heat for a few minutes. Pour 1 tablespoon of the cognac or brandy into a small heat-proof bowl or cup, stir in the saffron threads, and place in the toasting pan to warm. Stir to dissolve the saffron threads.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Toss in the celery, rosemary, thyme and bay leaf, and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, and continue to stir for half a minute, making sure not to brown the garlic. Add the lentils, 3 cups of cold water, tomatoes and the saffron-brandy mixture. Bring the heat up to a simmer and cook for half an hour, covered, or until the lentils are soft but not falling apart. Remove from heat, and toss out the bay leaf and the stem from the rosemary sprig. Add the red wine vinegar and salt, and grind in some black pepper. Taste for seasoning, and set aside to rest.
Heat the other tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan over medium-low heat and add the bread. Sauté on both sides until nicely browned.
In a small bowl, beat together the cream, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of cognac or brandy, and a small pinch of ground cloves with a wire whisk until the cream just begins to thicken.
Ladle the lentils into warm bowls, add a fews bits of the fried bread, and drip a spoon or two of the brandied cream over each bowl. Serves 4-6.