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

The Guardian - Cook - - A Kitchen In Rome - Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rachelal­iceroddy

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).

Poached quince

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 cloves

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.

Serves 6-12

12 small dessert or bak­ing ap­ples (such as rus­set, cox or bram­ley) 100g but­ter

200g mince­meat

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.

Serves 8

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

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