01 January 2009
Lentils for the New Year
In a previous post, I wrote about "Hoppin' John" and the good luck tradition of eating black-eyed peas on the first day of the new year. This year, however, my family is more "bonne année" than "happy new year": we're having lentils this New Year's Day, according to French tradition.
Although the dish is different, the symbolism remains the same: we ladle out prosperity in the coming year, along with comfort and safety brought to mind by this "homey" winter meal.
As to the lentils themselves, I have learned to use nothing but the famous "lentilles vertes du Puy," from Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne. If you never did like lentils here in the States, and have not tried the du Puy lentils, I beg you to try them and reconsider; they are no relation to the drab, soft, muddy-tasting ones that are too common here. I actually thought I hated lentils until I tried these, and now they are a staple in my kitchen.
Francemagazine.org has a good article about the lentils. "Originally from the Mediterranean," the article says, "lentils have been cultivated for some 10,000 years. They were introduced to the volcanic Le-Puy-en-Velay area by the Gauls and have been part of the local landscape ever since. [. . .] Lentilles Vertes du Puy are so prized that they have been anointed with an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). They are green, of course, and small with a tender skin; their fruity, mineral flavor inspires chefs throughout the country to use them with abandon." You can find the full text of the article here. The du Puy lentils hold their shape very well when cooked--even when cooked in excess--and they do not need to be soaked before cooking (only picked over carefully; I have found the occasional tiny but very hard pebble in my lot of lentils!).
The following recipe is one I first made for my husband in early 2001, when we were living on 57th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. We had a small balcony overlooking the southern tip of Manhattan (and, yes, the World Trade Center), and we'd have meals out there whenever the thermometer crept above, say, 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This recipe has stood the test of time, and is still in our annual repertoire. It's particularly comforting when the weather turns cold, but we have it on hand to eat year-round.
New Year's Day 2009 is bright and sunny here in New York, and probably a bit cold--no one has been outside yet today. It's a great day to be indoors, around a family table, sharing hopes for the coming year. We're having our celebration for the afternoon meal, and the rest of the day will be one of quiet reflection for me--less quiet for my five-year-old, and not quiet at all for my husband, who is going to work later in the day (life in the restaurant industry!).
Without further delay, here is the recipe. I enjoy it in your honor, wishing everyone a prosperous and very happy new year!
Good Luck Lentil "Soup"
(Note: Cooked at a slightly higher temperature and for a bit longer, I reduce the liquid down to nearly nothing, so for our family this does not much resemble soup any longer, therefore the quotation marks. You can make this more of a soup if you wish by following the instructions below, or else cook it down to a thicker consistency as I do.)
1 pound French (du Puy) lentils
2 TBS olive oil
8 slices Canadian-style bacon or hamsteak, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock (use Pacific brand, organic free-range)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 large carrot, scrubbed clean and diced
salt and pepper, to taste
Pick over lentils carefully and remove any stones; rinse under cold water, and drain.
Heat olive oil in a stock pot over medium-low heat. Add Canadian bacon or ham, onion, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent but not brown.
Add lentils, chicken stock, bay leaves, and thyme. Stir and increase heat to high. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook, partially covered until lentils are tender, about an hour (stir periodically).
Add carrot, salt, and pepper to taste. Stir and simmer another 20-30 minutes. Taste again and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve hot; store unused portions in the freezer if you want it to last (it reheats well).
Simmer smoked sausage with the soup, or grill some and serve on the side. There are so many great sausages now (lamb, pork, turkey or chicken), and even very spicy ones such as merguez pair wonderfully with the lentils.
Alternatively, garnish the soup with a piquant salsa or some sour cream mixed with a little curry powder for spice.
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