It was fascinating to see lentils growing on low plants, protected by bean-sized green pods. We were in a field in the middle of Sicily, and there were chickpeas growing, too, also in neat green jackets, and in the next field wheat. It was June and the sun was high and hot, but it had rained the night before, so our ankles were warmed by steam.
We had been told to wear sensible shoes, and I was wearing clogs; sensible, but not in a field. So while I tried to listen to Francesco Di Gesu explain how the lentils grown on his land would be harvested, thrashed and dried, I was distracted by the way my feet were collecting the clay earth. Not a normal amount, but massive, ever-increasing clumps, which made my legs look like uprooted tree trunks and walking harder and harder, until eventually I lost one and got stuck in the other; part stork, part adult version of a childhood game.
After pointing and laughing, someone came to my aid and we used a stick to lever off some earth; I managed to stomp off more on the way to the van. Later, back where we had come from, I sat and scraped away the rest of the now dry mud, and with it dozens of lentils, a memory now relived every time I tip a bag of them into a pan and cover with water.
You are, most likely, reading this in early January, so happy new year. Maybe you ate lentils last night, their coin shape an augury of wealth and happiness for this coming year. Or maybe you ate a grape every time the clock struck or iPhone beeped down to midnight – that, too, is said to ensure a secure and comfortable tomorrow. If you didn’t, here is a recipe that includes both, about which I can’t promise anything (although I am always optimistic), except for its goodness.
Most of the time I braise lentils, cooking them in just enough water that by the end it is almost completely absorbed and the final consistency soft. For this dish, however, while the lentils should be completely cooked and tender, I don’t want them to collapse, so I boil them in well-seasoned water, then drain. The cooking time of lentils depends on their variety, and on how old they are and how they have been stored, so, as always, keep tasting.
This is a recipe that lends itself to variations. The cheese could be replaced with hard-boiled eggs and anchovy fillets, sausages or roast red peppers. That said, I do suggest trying it with the goat’s cheese – its creamy sharpness is terrific with the sweet-earthy lentils. Most herbs can be stirred into warm lentils, as can lightly toasted cumin seeds or crushed coriander; you could even stir in a handful of cooked chestnuts, toasted hazelnuts or ribbons of radicchio. Or spoon the lentils on radicchio leaf-boats, ready to sail into 2022.
350g small brown or puy lentils
2 bay leaves
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 stick celery
Salt and back pepper
200g small red grapes
A few marjoram sprigs
4 small goat’s cheese (60-80g each)
1 tsp red-wine vinegar
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Put the lentils, bay, garlic, celery and a pinch of salt in a pan, cover with one and a half litres of water, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape.
While the lentils are cooking, put the grapes on a small baking tray, pour over some oil, sprinkle with salt, add the marjoram, and toss. Bake at 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 for 20 minutes, until soft and blistered, then pull from oven, put the cheese on top and return to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese is warm.
Drain the lentils, then put them in a bowl and toss with three tablespoons olive oil, salt, lots of black pepper, the red-wine vinegar and parsley. Share the lentils between four plates and top each serving with some of the grapes and a cheese.