I got lots of lovely presents this Christmas. There was the gorgeous waxed canvas handbag with leather trimming that doubles as a camera bag from TP. Friends, colleagues and students gave me some handmade cards and edible gifts which I always appreciate. My parents were also generous enough to get some frames done for some pictures, posters and photographs I’d been hanging out to hang in our flat. And yes, there was the nomination for Italy Magazine’s Best New Blog. And while we’re on that subject, thank you once again for continuing to follow my culinary adventures and voting for me. Funnily enough though, the gift which excited me the most was a mysterious package my fellow Cucina Conversations blogger (and extended family member) Marialuisa sent to me a couple of weeks ago.
Enclosed in a thick, cardboard box which I immediately tore away at, I could discern the contours of a round, lidded container through the Christmas-themed paper wrapped around it. The vase-like object inside had two handles. Somehow, I resisted the urge to remove those layers of festive paper before Christmas lunch. It was, however, the first gift under the tree I opened. While TT danced with the new teddy bear TP and I had bought for her, I beheld the rustic, two-handled terracotta jar Marialuisa and my calabrese father swore by for cooking beans and pulses.
Best known as a pignatta in central and southern Italy, this urn-like, earthenware receptacle was traditionally used to cook beans and legumes in a fireplace. Terracotta may be a delicate cooking material (I have a cracked, bright yellow pot I bought while holidaying in Puglia several years ago to prove it) and woodfires are no longer the lone source of heat available to most Italian households, but many people are still nostalgic for this ancient method of cooking legumes. Karima Moyer-Nocchi, author of Chewing the Fat, rightly warned us in a recent interview of the dangers of romanticising past Italian foodways. I have to admit though, it was difficult not to be charmed by Dad’s childhood recollections of cooking with these smoke-marked cooking jugs as we opened our presents. The next day, I set out to cook with my new gift on my gas stovetop. Yes, they make pignatte suitable for cooking in modern, fireplace-free kitchens too now.
Capodanno or New Year was coming up, so lentils were the obvious choice of legume to cook in my new jar. In Italy, it’s traditional for the gargantuan meal or cenone (literally, ‘big dinner’) served on New Year’s Eve to include a dish featuring lentils, or as they are known in Italian, lenticchie. With their round, coin-like shape, eating these pulses is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year.
One of the world’s oldest domesticated plants, Italians have come up with a variety of ways to prepare lentils since the crop was introduced to the peninsula several millennia ago. Nutritionally-dense and protein-rich, legumes like lentils were essential to keeping the country’s once mostly peasant population nourished in scarcer times.
These days, food (and most importantly, meat) is more abundant but protein-packed lentils are still commonly used to make soups, stews, purees, salads, pasta and rice dishes in the country. Probably the most iconic New Year’s lentil-based dishes come from the region of Emilia-Romagna, where lentils are often paired with cotechino (a boiled, sausage-like salami made with pork, fatback and rind) or zampone (similar to cotechino but encased in a hollowed-out pig’s trotter). It’s become common elsewhere in central and northern Italy to garnish a platter with lentils with slices of cotechino or zampone too.
My favourite way of cooking and eating lentils is in a soup like this one I recently wrote about for Italy Magazine. For our New Year’s Day lunch though, I felt I should prepare them the way my mother-in-law often does, boiled, dressed in a good extra virgin olive oil and with some slices of cotechino served on top. She’s currently recovering from an operation in a local rehabilitation centre. Though she’ll be able to return home for the first couple of days of 2017, she’ll be in no condition to cook, so I’ve offered to prepare lunch, which, as tradition dictates, must include these tiny, auspicious medallions. This is how I’ll be boiling lentils to inaugurate the New Year.
Lenticchie bollite (Boiled lentils)
Recipe adapted from Beppe Bigazzi and Sergio Grasso’s La cucina del buon senso
200 g brown lentils, soaked for 12 hours
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 L water
salt, to taste
extra virgin olive oil, for dressing
In a colander, drain lentils of their soaking water. Along with bay leaves and garlic cloves, place inside pignatta, cover with water and bring to boil. Skim away any foam that rises to the surface. Cook, covered over low to medium heat for 45-50 minutes or until lentils are tender. Season with salt. Drain cooked lentils. Transfer to serving dish and dress with extra virgin olive oil. Garnish plate with slices of cotechino or zampone, if desired. Serve as an antipasto or as a side dish and remember, the more lentils you eat, the more good luck and fortune will come your way in 2017.
Buon appetito e Buon Anno!
N.B. Some of this post’s content also appeared in Italy Magazine on 30 December 2016.