Sun, Sea & Olives: The end-of-the-year celebrations in Italy last from Christmas Eve all the way to Epiphany on Jan. 6, when La Befana — the good witch — brings toys to virtuous children and lumps of coal to naughty ones.
Years ago, when I lived in Rome, we used to spend that time in the country. But one year we stayed behind in Rome for the celebrations. Back then, a cherished urban custom was to open the windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve and heave onto the street all the year’s accumulated rubbish, anything to be discarded — old scorched pots and pans, broken jugs and lamps, even small pieces of furniture, and sometimes large ones, too — and guai a chi sta sotto, beware all ye who pass beneath!
On this night, we leaned out a friend’s third-floor window overlooking the via dei Cappellari in vecchia Roma to watch the activity as the bells of all the churches pealed a joyous cascade for the new year and an accompanying crash descended from the neighboring windows. Our friend quickly pulled us inside, though, when across the narrow alley he spied a neighbor with a pistol who took aim and shot out the street lamp, plunging the street into darkness. Such was Roman anarchy 30 or more years ago. We went back to the table to continue eating lentils.
Lentils a good-luck food in the new year
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Lentils for the new year is an Italian custom that may well go back to Roman times. In fact, lentils are one of the earliest cultivated crops to garnish our ancestral tables. (Remember Esau, scorning his birthright for a mess of pottage? It was lentils in that bowl.)
Exactly when they became linked to good fortune in the year ahead is not clear, but in Italy the little gray-green disks tarnished with a bronze patina as if they were buried treasure from a pirate’s chest still signify small coins. The more you eat, the more treasure you stand to accumulate in the year ahead. So on San Silvestro, New Year’s Eve, along with tossing trash, we also consumed large quantities of lentils, often with zampone, a succulent, savory pork sausage encased in a pig’s trotter that bathes the lentils in its unctuous juices.
We eat lentils for luck in the new year to this day.
By the time you read this, New Year’s will have come and gone and the last ring of sausage juice will have been licked clean from my platter along with the last little lentil, but that’s no reason to give up on these tiny, nutritional treasures.
If you’re like me, and like 92.5 percent (I’m just guessing) of American adults, you have made several New Year’s resolutions, at least one of which is to lose weight, improve your diet or go to the gym twice a week. Skip the gym if you will, but why not begin a new diet with lentils? Low in fat and calories and high in protein, fiber and minerals, they will add punch to your resolutions.
Bring the flavor
I should warn you, however, that lentils plain and simple, on their own with no adornment, are considered by some to be one of human history’s most boring foods. They have an earthy flavor, however, that becomes absolutely enticing when it’s countered with something sharp and peppery (chili) or tart and puckery (lemons, preserved or fresh) or snappy and green (fresh herbs of any kind) or, indeed, all of the above.
Sparked with crisp winter vegetables (fennel, celery, scallions, celery root) and bitter greens, they can make an enticing main-course salad; steamed in a carroty, gingery, garlicky broth they are deeply restorative on a cold winter night. And there’s an added bonus: Of all the legumes, lentils are easiest to prepare because they require no soaking and not more than 20 to 30 minutes cooking. Another bonus: You can make a double portion and freeze part so as to have a soup or salad ingredient ready — the smallest lentils will thaw rapidly once out of the freezer.
But what lentils should you use? The varieties presented in well-stocked supermarkets may be perplexing, but they’re easy to sort out. Medium brown or blond lentils are fine, but for flavor I prefer the smallest ones, about a millimeter in diameter and darker in color, sometimes sold as lentilles de Puy or French lentils, though they’re not always from France. I also like Beluga lentils, shiny and black, and especially the tiny lenticchie from Umbria’s Colfiorito plateau at www.gustiamo.com, with a nutty flavor that’s seductive and, as our British cousins say, more-ish.
Red, orange and yellow split lentils are used to make Indian dal, or lentil puree; they will naturally soften into a pleasing mush with cooking. They’re delicious in their own right and not to be discounted by cooks looking for healthy ingredients, but they’re not what we’re talking about here.
For salads and some other preparations, cook lentils in advance, first rinsing them briefly. About a cup of lentils to 2½ to 3 cups of water brought to a simmer, covered and cooked for 20 to 30 minutes should be fine, but the cooking time will depend on the age and size of the lentils, so check frequently after 20 minutes.
Here are several suggestions and a recipe to bring lentils into your new year:
- Lentil and bulgur soup from Turkey: Cook 1 1/2 cups of lentils in 4 cups of water until tender, then combine with a cup of bulgur wheat that has been soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and squeezed dry. Sauté a couple of sliced onions in olive oil, add a pinch of ground cumin, a pinch of ground red Middle Eastern pepper (Aleppo pepper), salt and black pepper to taste and stir this mix into the soup. Add some ground turmeric if you wish, and garnish with minced fresh mint leaves. Thick and substantial, this soup will keep away coughs and sniffles.
- Cook lentils with finely chopped carrot, celery, onions and garlic, adding some Tuscan aromatics such as bay leaves, minced parsley, fennel and minced rosemary. When done, combine with pasta or rice to make a complete main dish.
- Lentil salad: Mix cooked lentils with chopped green olives and a chopped red pepper and toss with slivered bitter salad greens — arugula, chicory frisée and red radicchio would all be good. Or leave out the green olives and substitute some walnuts, coarsely chopped, and slivered scallions — lots of them so it’s essentially a lentil-walnut-scallion salad. Fresh wild mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley make a nice addition to a lentil salad, and if you have a North African-style salted lemon, sliver that to add to the mushroom mixture and stir in a small dollop of harissa.
The above suggestions are all vegetarian, but if you’re what I call an “almost vegetarian,” try my New Year’s lentil-and-sausage dish for a great Sunday supper. Cotechino or zampone are hard to find; instead I use a combination of Toulouse and Italian sweet sausages from my local market, Maine Street Meat in Rockport, Maine. If you can’t get to Rockport, use the best sausages you can find locally.
Gratin of Tiny Lentils and Spicy Sausages for the New Year
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total: 60 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings, depending on what else is on the menu
1 1/2 cups small lentils
2 whole peeled garlic cloves
1 medium red chili, not too hot
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 chopped garlic cloves
1 chopped medium onion
About 1/2 cup sliced scallions, white and green parts
1 1/2 pounds fresh sausages, sliced about 1/2-inch thick
1 cup dry red or white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the lentils, whole garlic cloves and chili in a saucepan with 4 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. When done, strain the lentils from the liquid in the pan, discarding the garlic and chili, and set aside, reserving the liquid.
2. In a sauté pan, combine the olive oil, chopped garlic and chopped onion and set over medium-low heat. Let the vegetables cook gently until they are very tender, then combine with the cooked lentils and raw scallions. Transfer to a gratin dish large enough to hold all the ingredients.
3. Set the oven to 400 F.
4. Add the sausage slices to the pan in which you cooked the onions and sauté until the sausages are brown on both sides. Distribute the sausages over the top of the lentils in the gratin dish.
5. If the sausages have given off a lot of fat, remove all but about a tablespoon and discard. Add wine to the sauté pan, raise the heat and simmer the wine, scraping up the brown bits in the pan. Let the wine reduce to about half, then pour over the lentils, adding a little salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, add up to a cup of the reserved lentil cooking liquid — the lentils should not be swimming in liquid but just sort of bathing in it.
6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the dish is very hot and starting to brown on top.
Note: The dish may be served immediately, but it’s just as good presented a little warmer than room temperature, so it’s perfect for a Sunday buffet. If you prefer, you can prepare all the parts of this ahead, then assemble them and put them into the oven just before you’re ready to serve.
Main photo: Lentils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins