Pulse of Life

I have long appreciated the Italian habit of eating lentils on the last evening in December, the little coin-shaped pulses, we are told, guaranteeing prosperity in the twelve months to come. The joke, of course, is that if you feasted on lentils every day prosperity would be almost guaranteed. This combination of superstition with practicality strikes me as very Italian or perhaps very Catholic, the flipside of the Feast Of The Seven Fishes, that blowout fast, observed in Provence as well as parts of Italy, where diners gorge themselves on the few ingredients allowed them by their religious dietary calendar. As well as the titular seafood, an array of no less than thirteen desserts is offered; to be fair, though, most of them are fruit. Still, after such extravagant frugality, you can forgive the Italians for confining themselves to lentils for the next big event.

Sausages, of course, are the proper accompaniment, and I have had a hankering for this particular preparation of the two; for a variety of reasons, though, not least the general availability of cotechino on a Sunday in Norwich, I’m not making it today. Instead I am reading back into my own family traditions for this lentil ragu, a constant in my childhood and still much-requested whenever I or my brothers visit home. In fact, as my mother told me when I asked her for the recipe, we once had it as the main course on Christmas Day, piled (as is traditional) on top of a mound of spaghetti; I say ‘we’ but this was, by my mother’s account, six years before I was born. I think, anyway, that New Year’s Eve is a more appropriate place for it – you need something to line the stomach, after all.

My mother claims to have found this recipe in a women’s magazine some time around 1980; be that as it may, the use of sweet spices in a tomato sauce for pasta strikes me as rather Venetian and so this evening we will be preceding it with sardines agrodolce and some little crostini of smoked eel, a little touch of luxury before our frugal feast. This is what she sent me –

The recipe as I always cook it:

4oz red lentils
1 small can (140gm) tomato puree
4 small cans (ie the empty tomato puree can) of water
1 tsp grd cinnamon
1 tsp grd coriander
2 cloves garlic, crushed
olive oil

Lightly cook spices and garlic in olive oil in a pressure cooker.
Add lentils, tomato puree and water.
Bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then cook at pressure for 30 minutes.
Salt to taste.

The above quantities and timings give a rich thick sauce – the only thing that has ever gone wrong is that it sometimes burns a little on the base – but stirring carefully until it boils prevents that. I have never cooked it in an ordinary pan, and am not sure whether it’s the pressure cooking that gives it its particularly rich quality.

The pressure cooking certainly fits with the dates my mother gave, and I think she is right to attribute the sauce’s particular richness to that technique. Heston Blumenthal says that pressure cooking allows liquid to boil at a temperature high enough for Maillard reactions to take place, those complex caramelisations of sugar and protein which give well-browned meat its irresistible savour, which is why he always cooks stock in a pressure cooker; this being the case, the sweet tomato puree and savoury lentils must be undergoing the same process in the method above.

Half an hour at pressure, furthermore, roughly equates to (I think) around one and a half hours of regular simmering, much longer than you would usually give red lentils. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, as I’m sure most people don’t, then fry the tomato puree in the oil after the garlic has coloured a little, so it cooks out and begins to darken; then, when everything is added, simmer slowly for one hour and one half (you might need more water) until the lentils collapse into absolute submission. If their particular rich quality does not guarantee your own richness, you will, at least, be well-fed.