I’m not superstitious, but I do appreciate when certain superstitions give me an excuse to do something I want to do anyway. In Italy, lentils, called lenticchie (pronounced “len-TEA-ki-yay”) are traditionally eaten for New Year because they are supposed to bring prosperity to the eater. The reasoning being that the little legumes are vaguely reminiscent of teeny tiny coins so by eating them, you will be showered with money. (Makes perfect sense, if you like lentils.) Which is why, when 2012 rolled around, thinking my friends and I could use a little prosperity ourselves, I invited a few over on a sunny January first, and decided to give the experiment a go.
I started with Umbrian Lentils, which grow in and around a town called Castelluccio, in Umbria. Lenticchie di Castelluccio, like the more widely known French Lentils du Puy, are granted IGT (protected geographical indication) status, which means in order to bear the name Castelluccio, they have to be grown in that particular region. Smaller than traditional brown lentils, Umbrian lentils come in various shades of brown and are known for their tender skin and rich, slightly sweet flavor. I bought my Umbrian lentils at Mozzza2Go. I’ve also seen them at the Cheese Shop in Beverly Hills and online. They’re never less than $10 a pound, and they are also not real, actual Castellucio area-protected lentils. Those sold here are all from the nearby area of Colfiorito, which means “flowering” for the way that the hillsides flower in the springtime when the lentils are in bloom. As far as I can tell they are the same lentil, minus the pedigree. I spent $40 on three pounds of rogue Umbrian lentils, or roughly eight times what I would have spent had I started with regular brown lentils from the grocery store. The lentil-prosperity project, like so many good things in life, was going to be a story in patience and faith.
This is the “town,” where lentils are grown. It’s full of tourists, mostly Italian, many of them on motorcycles, who come for the beautiful drive and a bowl of rich, sausagey lentils while they’re there. I visited this little crater of the world two summers ago. It’s a long winding drive to the top of the Apennine Mountains, nestled at the crest of the mountains that separate Umbria from a region I’d never even heard of until I got within a stone’s throw of it: The Marche.
No sunflowers here, kids. It looks more like Tibet, minus the prayer flags, or the moon, minus whatever is on the moon, than Umbria.
Forty-three days into the new year, I’ve determined that part of the reason for the prosperity brought by the lentils, presuming you didn’t spend $40 on yours, must be that you end up eating lentils for the next hundred days. Okay, so I exaggerate. I ate my last bowl of New Year’s lentils just today. I drizzled them with olive oil so good that it, too, could interfere with my prosperity. But certainly not my quality of life. Which is why, as I write this, I have another enormous batch of lentils simmering on the stove, and still more Umbrian lentils in the cupboard waiting for a poor and rainy day. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like money in the bank.
Prosperity Lentils, Umbrian Style
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 Spanish onions, diced
1/4 pound prosciutto (if you are not a vegetarian), pancetta, or bacon; ground in a mini food processor until it’s a paste
2-3 celery stalks, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
4-10 carrots (knock your socks off if you like carrots!), sliced about 1/4-inch thick
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double concentrated)
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound lentils (preferably Umbrian)
2 to 3 quarts chicken stock
Pour enough olive oil into a soup pot to cover the bottom pretty generously. Add the onions and season them with salt. Cook them for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring often so they don’t get color on them. Add whatever ground pork you are using, if you are using it, and cook it for 3 to 4 minutes to render the fat. Add the celery and carrots. (You could also add some leeks if you happen to have them, which I did today.) Season the vegetables with salt and cook them for about 10 minutes to soften them, adding more olive oil if the pan seems dry. (The more olive oil you add, the better your lentils will taste. Period.) Add the tomato paste (preferably the Italian stuff, which comes in a tube, not the canned stuff, which tastes cloying and weird), making sure the paste lands on the pan, not in the vegetables, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes to get rid of the raw tomato flavor. Add the garlic and saute for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the lentils and enough chicken stock or water to cover them by an inch. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the lentils, adding more stock or water (or a combination) as needed, until they are tender. This takes about an hour, and you will probably use 2 to 3 quarts of total liquid.
Serve the lentils with good olive oil drizzled on top. If you want, you can also add crumbled Italian sausage. According to Italian tradition, you’re supposed to eat them with cotecchino, a weird meat product that comes in a box, unrefrigerated, lasts for generations, and that Italians love almost as much as they love their mothers. I never found one that doesn’t taste like Spam to me, so were I to want a super meaty, one pot lentil meal, I’d go the Italian sausage route. Here’s to your wealth.