The Purloined Lentil

I have knowingly and openly stolen two things in my life: a Peppermint Pattie and about one-quarter of the flowering branches from a medium-size forsythia tree growing in a yard that was not mine. In both cases, I was punished to the fullest extent of civilized parental law, using the shame method: I was forced to return both items, then endure otherwise moot lectures by the affronted drugstore owner and the horrified gardener. 

In my defense, during my criminal period I clearly recognized what had real value in the world. 

Both crimes were of course committed back when my brain was still pliable (i.e., before age 10). So rather than blow the punishments off and continue to take what I wanted, I turned into one of those people who goes out of her way to make it very clear that I am not stealing: I generally return things that accidentally end up in my grocery bag, I don't "taste" cherries at the produce stand, I give other people credit even if I think I am the one who really deserves it; if, for instance, I still happen to have a  book loaned to me by a person who has moved out of town, I flinch when I hear a police siren. It can be hellish, being so virtuous. 

Of course, each person's idea of what qualifies as theft is probably flexible. 

When it comes to reworking recipes, I tend to go so overboard in giving credit that the creator of the original probably ends up resenting the byline--especially if my version has a certain graceless rusticity not found in its model. But I like to think that I am not making recipes better or worse; I am tailoring them to my own tastes. 

Sadly, we live in a world full of people are not as naturally guilty as I am. They'll lay claim to a dish for flimsy reasons, especially on the internet, where some terrific sites (such as simplyrecipes) are often attacked by evil recipe pirates. In Chicago, one chef, Homaro Cantu, has taken the step of patenting

Of course, if everyone were like me, recipes that had been handed down a million times would be so title-cumbersome--like the future great-grandchildren of couples who give their offspring hyphenate surnames--that people would give up cooking altogether. We don't want that. 

So when is calling a not entirely original formula your own no longer stealing? If the person who gave you the recipe dies? If you add 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg instead of the 1/4 teaspoon suggested in the original? If you use salmon instead of mahi mahi? If you roast rather than saute?

And how do we punish those who steal recipes?

I don't know. But I do know this: however neurotic I am,  I'm probably not the only home cook or recipe collector (or recipe inventor) who worries about this sort of thing. [This just in: a nice piece on the topic by the truly wonderful F.F.W. (Famous Food Writer) David Lebovitz, sent to me by another blogger I'm keen on.]

This dish I'm about to share (aside from borscht, it is the best use for beets I can imagine) falls into a gray zone. I know I didn't dream it up myself, but I also do not have a recipe record. I am pretty sure it came from an article in Metropolitan Home, back in about 1992, accompanying the story of a cute young couple so poor that they threw together their wedding with the help of friends. One friend/guest made salad very similar to this one. It is a surprisingly delicious, elegant dish that needs nothing from the dairy department; don't even be tempted to add goat or feta cheese. I love the way it all takes on the ruby stain of the beets, too. 

If anyone can give me the exact origins of the recipe, I'm happy to cite. Until then, it is:

Emily's Purloined Beet and Lentil Salad
Serves 6-8

6 medium beets, unpeeled, scrubbed, trimmed
1 medium onion (red or yellow), quartered lengthwise, sliced into 1/3 inch slices 
20 basil leaves, torn
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups lentils, picked over and rinsed
4-5 cups chicken stock
Simple Mustard Vinaigrette (below)

  1. Preheat oven to 425. Place whole beets into  a 13x9x2-inch baking dish; strew with onion slices, basil leaves, crushed garlic. Drizzle with olive oil; salt, pepper. Add water to pan.
  2. Cover pan tightly with foil, bake without uncovering, for 1 hour and 15 minutes. 
  3. While beets are roasting, place lentils in another 13x9x2-inch pan with 4 cups of the stock, tightly covered with foil. After the beets have cooked for 45 minutes, place lentils in oven. Check lentils after 30 minutes. If stock has been absorbed and lentils are tender, remove with beets. Otherwise, continue to cook another 15 minutes or so, adding more broth if necessary to prevent lentils from burning.
  4. Meanwhile, make Simple Mustard Vinaigrette.
  5. Allow beets and lentils to cool, uncovered. (Drain any excess broth from lentils if necessary) Remove beets from pan, reserving remaining beet-juice-onion-basil mixture. Peel, cut into 1-inch chunks; combine with lentils and juice-onion-basil mixture in a large bowl. Toss with about half jar of Simple mustard Vinaigrette, more or less to taste. Adjust salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature. 

Simple mustard vinaigrette, again

In a jar, stir together 8 tablespoons olive oil,  1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper. Place the lid on the jar, and shake vigorously, until emulsified.


  1. Interesting point, often wondered whether anyone could truly own a recipe as in "I made it first!". Copywriting content I can understand but copywriting recipes?

    Not so sure.

  2. This is really tricky! I am a big fan of "inspired by" and "adapted from" as a tagline for recipes...
    Looks like a lovely salad.

  3. Recipes cannot be copyrighted.

  4. That is a very good point, Kelsey Smith. I miswrote, and the word I should have chosen is patented, which is what Cantu did. Of course, recipes are like folk stories. Thanks to you and Maggie for reading.

  5. Yesterday I was reading Champaign Taste,a blog written by Lisa in Champaign Il. She posted an intriguing red lentil salad that I decided I will make for this weekend-I will make a link to her blog, but I decided I would add roasted beets to sort of intensify the color. Then this morning I come accross your post on this lovely salad, so I guess I must also link to you. Although I think I prefer Tarragon with beets rather than the Basil you suggest, and Lisa's salad calls for chevre. Also I love the fact that your recipe is "Purloined"-a fascinating word choice.

  6. I just found your blog and....I'm in love(:

  7. I used to work in food PR. I think the standard for when you could call a recipe your own was a minimum of 3 changes. Of course, recognizing that the recipe was "inspired by" another's is always appreciated.

  8. I know what you mean about recipes that have been handed down. They came from somewhere but by the time they get to me, it's lost. I say "adapted from" with everything I use when I know for certain. I heard someplace recipes are not copywrited but directions are.

  9. Lovely lead in to a wonderful treatment for beets! Thanks so much. Can't wait to try it.

  10. I took a version of this on a hiking trip with me today (forgot the basil, used a low-fat mustard vinaigrette). What a great, high-energy dish. Very portable too! Thanks.

  11. this sounds amazing, I'm totally gonna give this recipe a try and refer to your blog for instructions, credit, etc.
    Integrity, ethics and great taste in one blog post...wow, I'll be coming back for more life lessons!

  12. Penny, thank you for the kind words!
    And Salad Girl, I agree that it is very portable: unless you are wearing tennis whites, it is a convenient dish.
    Joyce, please let me know what you think.
    Michelle, I'm glad you like my blog! Spread the word.
    Kitcheninferno, thanks for reading. I think tarragon is a great idea, but I am a basil freak.
    Thanks for reading, everyone!