Lentils for la Cenone

It’s a tradition in Italy, one I honor and respect each time a new year rolls around: lentils for Capo d’Anno, the top of the year, almost always served with either sumptuous zampone, a delectably rich and sticky sausage made in a stuffed pig’s trotter, or with cotechino, similar but slightly more polite perhaps since it’s simply a big fat sausage without the attachment of a pig’s cloven hoof.

I can’t find zampone or cotechino in Maine; nonetheless, I’m duty-bound to eat lentils on San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve). Why? Because each tiny legume represents another coin added to my treasure chest in the year ahead and if I don’t consume lentils, well, poverty inevitably will loom.

I like to use tiny lentils from Castelluccio in Umbria–they are incomparably sweet and hold up well, not disintegrating when they’re simmered for 30 to 40 minutes. Another similar choice are the equally small lentilles de Puy from France’s Auvergne. It’s worth seeking out either of these for superior flavor and texture. I was surprised to see that no less an authority than Elizabeth David recommends soaking these lentils for at least an hour and then cooking them for an hour and a half. That seems way too long to me. I never soak lentils, and I cooked these ones for just about 40 minutes until they were thoroughly tender but still with a pleasant bit of texture. And a pound of lentils makes enough for a feast–8 to 10 servings, depending on what else goes with them (that zampone, perhaps).

Usually I just simmer the lentils slowly with a little onion, garlic
and a couple of bayleaves for aromatics. But this year I took a slightly different tack, using flavors I’ve picked up all over the Mediterranean, Turkish red pepper flakes from Urfa, a pinch of dried chilis from the gardens at the American Academy in Rome,  za’atar broght back from the hills above Beirut, and a healthy dollop of Maria Grammatico’s concentrato di pomodoro or stratto, which brings with it the brilliant intensity of the Sicilian sun–all of this cooked together with some chopped onion, garlic, carrot, and red sweet (Bell) pepper, flavored with cumin, bay leaves and a split finger of fresh ginger. I roasted all these together in olive oil, then added water and cooked it down to a thick sauce. The lentils were simmered separately, then stirred into the sauce when they were tender. And then, as a zesty fillip just before serving, I added some chopped cilantro and slivers of Moroccan salt-preserved lemons. What a feast, even without the zampone!



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