Fires and lentils at midnight
In Italy, lentils are a lucky charm at the turn of the year, often served at parties with fat sausages. Give this a lift with a side of poached quince and have a festive finish with baked apples and chocolate chestnut cake, says Rachel Roddy
However you choose to celebrate, best wishes for a happy ending and a good beginning
New Year in Italy means lentils. In Rome, they say those who eat lentils and grapes at New Year conta quatrini tutto l’anno (count coins all year long). It is the magic of their form. Shaped (a bit) like coins, lentils are an augury of wealth and happiness: the more you eat, the better your fortune the following year. It is a tradition upheld in much of the country, although different regions have different ways of eating lentils and have different accompaniments – particularly good are the fat cotechino sausages of the north.
As a boy growing up in Sicily, my partner Vincenzo remembers the promise of fuochi e lenticchie a mezzanotte (fires and lentils at midnight), meaning that everyone went up on the roof and watched the fireworks that illuminated the Bay of Gela at midnight, then ate lentils or grapes. Some believe that you must eat the lentils while the clock is striking for them to be truly fortuitous, others that one chicco (grape) should be eaten with each of the 12 strokes, a challenge happily accepted by an eight-year-old boy with an elastic mouth.
It was in a room full of eightyear-olds where I first ate New Year lentils. I had foolishly gone to a party even though I wasn’t well. Realising I wouldn’t make it to midnight, I borrowed a hooded top that smelled of cigarette smoke and lay on a quiet sofa in a study, which turned out to be not so quiet when a dozen children arrived to watch a film. I couldn’t move, so lay with one child on my legs, another hitting me with a light sabre, listening feverishly to Madagascar in Italian. At midnight, the kids rushed off to throw party poppers and themselves around the garden and I listened to voices and glasses in the other rooms feeling like a melancholy teenager. Eventually I went through, at which point someone gave me an effervescent pill fizzing in a wine glass and a brown splodge of lentils. Each seemed bizarre, but welcome, especially the lentils, which were soft, warm and floury, also dull in the way that lentils are, almost muddy, but in a good way – pure comfort.
It isn’t just at New Year; Italians cook this most ancient legume all year round. Lentils are simmered for soups and stews, some of which are as beautifully spiced with cumin and coriander seeds as an Indian curry, braised as a side dish, often to go with pork and game. There are several prized varieties; the slate-coloured ones from Castelluccio in Umbria, roof-tile red ones from Santo Stefano in Abruzzo, and pale green-grey from a Sicilian island called Ustica, all of which are relatively expensive, but very good to eat. There are also lots of everyday lentils, the small green or brown ones being the best for today’s recipe, I think.
It is true that many recipes we make often are not really recipes at all but ways of doing things. Over time, taste and habit shape them. I am nosy and like the domestic details and culinary gossip that comes free when you ask someone how they make something. Even though I have my way, I will happily listen to another way to make lentils. While buying a packet the other day, I met my friend’s neighbour, an elderly lady who has spent her life cooking for many, who told me she simply cuts a stick of celery, onion and tomato into pieces the size of her fingernail, adds a handful of lentils per person, a bay leaf for flavour and good fortune, and enough water to come three fingers above the lentils, then simmers all this until the lentils taste as her late husband liked them. For others it is even simpler, lentils boiled with a whole carrot and a stick of celery until tender, then olive oil or butter is added at the table. The idiosyncrasies of how best to cook lentils increases with the addition of roast pork or sausages, which can turn them into a feast.
You might serve the lentils and cotechino sausages with the poached quince, in which case I suggest a tray of baked apples that requires nothing more than lots of cold cream and a hungry crowd, and a chocolate and chestnut cake that pleases almost everyone.
But recipes, lentils and grapes aside, whatever you cook or don’t cook, however you choose to celebrate, auguri di buona fine e buon principio – best wishes for a happy ending and a good beginning.
Lentils with Italian sausage
A speciality of Emilia-Romagna, most notably the town of Modena, cotechino is a large sausage made from cotica (pork rind) mixed with lean pork and back fat, and flavoured with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Zampone is a pig’s trotter stuffed with much the same filling. Traditional cotechino (and zampone) needs to be soaked and then boiled for several hours before they can be eaten. Alternatively, you can buy excellent quality precooked, vacuum-packed cotechino, which are effectively boil-in the bag and ready after 20-30 minutes. This produces a deeply flavoured juice that you can tip into the lentils. Some people like to stir a little vinegar into lentils too, saying the sharpness compliments the lentils and rich meat equally. Pork sausages work just as well with lentils.
Serves 4, generously
500g small brown lentils 6 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped 1 garlic clove, finely chopped 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped 1 celery stick, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 precooked cotechino, heated according to instructions, or finest quality pork sausages
Salt and black pepper
1 Wash the lentils. Boil the kettle. In a large, deep frying pan, warm the olive oil and add the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and fry gently until soft.
2 Add the lentils and bay leaves and then cover with at least 5cm of water and cook at the gentlest of simmers until the lentils are tender, but still with just a little bite – 20–40 minutes (be careful: lentils turn from tender to mush quite quickly). Keep tasting and add more water if the pan looks dry. By the end of cooking, the water should have been almost completely absorbed. Season.
3 Heat the cotechino according to instructions (which usually means putting it in simmering water to reheat for 30 minutes). Once ready, cut off the corner and tip the juices into the lentils and stir, then tip on to a warm platter. If you are using regular pork sausages, brown them in a little oil, then pour over a third of a bottle of wine (red, white or rosé) and put on the lid so they cook in a steamy braise for 20 minutes. Once cooked, take off the lid, raise the heat and let the juices reduce into a sticky gravy.
4 If you are using cotechino, slice it thickly or simply lay your sausages on top of the lentils. Serve with mostarda (mustard fruit) relish or poached quince (see below).
We had a quince tree in our garden when we were growing up. Like the crab apple tree, it was good for three things: climbing, falling out of and providing ammunition – the small
knobbly fruit with its fuzzy coat just right for low bowling. My mum would keep some of them in a bowl on the table because they smelt lovely. Years later I understand what she was talking about and look forward to a bowl of quince making the kitchen smell like a fruity boudoir. Quince poaches well, the slices becoming tender but holding their shape and tasting all at once like apple, pear and fragrant honey. Poached quince make a lovely pudding with cream, sit well beside cheese and cold meat (ham or leftover turkey) or sausages and lentils, and are delicious for breakfast with thick yoghurt. It’s best to allow them to sit in their syrup for a few hours before serving.
Makes a large bowlful
1kg quince 1 unwaxed lemon 250g sugar
6 black peppercorns 300ml white wine
1 Wash, peel, core and cut the quince into eighths. Using a peeler, pare away a strip of lemon zest. Put the quince, zest and all the other ingredients in a large pan, then top up with 300ml water. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for 40-60 minutes or until the quince is tender, but holding its shape.
2 Lift the quince from the liquid into a serving dish. Continue simmering the liquid until it has reduced into a syrup thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, then pour it over the quince. Allow it to sit for a few hours, or preferably a day, before eating. Keeps for several days.
Baked apples with mincemeat and cream (on the cover)
If you have a jar of mincemeat left over from Christmas, a spoonful as filling for a baked apple works extremely well, and a big tray of these makes for a welcoming and generous pudding. While the apples bake and slump, the skins wrinkling and flesh softening into a grainy almost-puree, the exposed tip of mincemeat darkens into a chewy tap while the rest sets into a sweet, thick core.
It is important to score the apples round their girth, otherwise they burst, the more floury the variety the more impressive the explosion of fluff. Once cooked, let the tray sit for a while so some of the buttery juices are absorbed back into the fruit. If you don’t have mincemeat, the classic blend of butter, soft brown sugar and raisins is always a treat, as is a splash of calvados or cider just before the apples go in the oven. As with all baked fruit, the last one, eaten cold the next day, is the best.
12 small dessert or baking apples (such as russet, cox or bramley) 100g butter
Cold thick cream, to serve
1 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Find an ovenproof dish that will accommodate all the apples, then rub it very generously with butter.
2 Remove the cores from the apples, keeping the apples whole, then score each apple around the middle, cutting through the skin, but not too deep, then arrange them snugly in the baking dish.
3 Stuff the empty cavity with mincemeat and dot with a tiny knob of butter, pushing it into the mincemeat with your fingertip.
4 Bake for 40 minutes, or until the apples are soft. Allow them to cool slightly before serving warm with cold thick cream.
Chocolate and chestnut cake
This gorgeous and festive cake is inspired by two recipes – one from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and another from Abruzzo, a region with great swathes of chestnut tree woods. The chestnuts work in a flour-like way, thickening milk into a soft puree that isn’t as sweet as the (delicious) sort you find in tins. While still warm, it is as much a mousse as a cake and so soft it requires a spoon as well as a cake slice. If you leave it for a couple of hours it cools into a dense fudge-like cake you can slice, carefully. Cooled overnight in the fridge it sets into an almost brownie-like consistency that is best eaten in slivers by fridgelight.
250g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) 250g unsalted butter, cut into cubes 250g roasted and peeled chestnuts (vacuum packed are fine or you can roast and peel your own)
250ml whole milk
4 medium-sized eggs
125g caster sugar
1 Grease and line a 25cm cake tin (the springform type is good) and set the oven to 170C/335F/gas 3½.
2 Break the chocolate into pieces, then melt along with the cubed butter in a small saucepan over a low flame.
3 In another pan, warm the milk and chestnuts together until the milk is nearly boiling. Remove the pan from the heat and mash the chestnuts into a paste in the milk with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender.
4 Separate the egg yolks from the whites and beat the yolks with the sugar in a large bowl. Fold the melted chocolate and butter into the yolk and sugar mixture, then stir this into the chestnut and milk puree to create a gloopy batter.
5 In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them into the rest of the ingredients.
6 Tip the mixture into the lined tin – carefully. Bake for 25–30 minutes, or until it has just set but still has a slight wobble.
7 If you want to serve the cake warm, let it cool a little and then very gently release the tin and slide it on to a plate. Do this carefully, as it will still be very soft, delicate and mousse-like. If you leave it to go cold it will set firm. Serve with thick cream.
Cooled overnight it sets into a brownie-like consistency that is best eaten in slivers by fridgelight