New Year’s Eve is a time universally associated with traditions and superstitions. As humans we assign each passing year almost human qualities, we give them personalities, and we blame them for bad things that have happened (though these things are almost always caused by people). We look forward to meeting the new year as if it was a mysterious stranger. We hope it’s friendly and generous, we want it to like us. So we say rabbit rabbit, we drop twelve grapes in a champagne glass, we eat food that we believe will make us prosperous and happy. And we resolve to give things up, to stop smoking and drinking, to lose weight, to live a healthier life.
This season marks a turning in the year–the days are longer, the light is hopeful, and on a warm day we can feel the soil expanding and the plants growing. It feels like a new start, a chance to begin again, and we resolve to greet this new beginning as our best possible self.
To me, “resolve” doesn’t mean to give something up, but to bring it into focus, to become harmonious, to be solved, or healed. To see things as clearly as we can, at the highest resolution. So I hope to bring things into focus and harmony in this new year, moment-to-moment and day-to-day. To notice everything, to recognize how vivid and poignant every moment is, how completely alive each person that I meet – how like me and how completely unique. I hope not to let fatigue, crankiness, or laziness cloud my senses or lessen my appreciation of time spent with my loved ones; of strong flavors, good sounds, beautiful sights. Not to be crippled by the sense that time is passing, but to let that awareness help me to feel more keenly. Not to be distracted by our fast, cold, cluttered, cynical world from clarity, light and warmth. I resolve to see the world through the best and clearest lens.
In an interesting but probably completely unrelated coincidence, one of the foods eaten in various parts of the world to bring luck and wealth is the lentil, or lens culinarus–so called because it’s shaped like a tiny lens. I love lentils any day of the year, so I’m very happy to eat them on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day! There are also superstitions associated with eating round or circular things, as well as with eating greens of some sort. So this meal plays on all of those ideas, plus it’s warm, comforting, and sustaining, and not difficult to make.
The “gravy” starts with a mix of vegetables (shallots, turnips, fennel, and mushrooms) diced quite fine and cooked till caramelized and flavorful. Then we add the seasoning–nutmeg, smoked paprika, and lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper. And then the lentils. I prefer a green lentil – french green (puy), Italian green, or Umbrian. They hold their form and have more flavor, which gives the gravy a lovely texture. You can substitute brown lentils if that’s all you have! The recipe is variable–you can use any vegetables that make sense to you–potatoes or carrots of winter squash would go well. But turnips and fennel are my favorites with lentils. You can also use any kind of greens on the side, but the simplest is a quick wilting of baby spinach leaves, which adds a vibrance and freshness. The biscuits are dropped into a muffin tin, they’re lumpy and uneven, but delightfully fluffy inside and crispy outside. You can just as easily make them on a baking sheet. And I always like to eat this with some form or potatoes–baked, mashed, or roasted and crispy. With a few adjustments the whole thing can be vegan.
Best wishes for a joyful, healthy, and creative New Year to all our Magpie friends!
1 cup Umbrian lentils, Italian green lentils or french green lentils
1 bay leaf
1 vegetarian bouillon cube (optional)
Rinse the lentils a few times and then cover with water to a depth of about 3 inches. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat until the lentils are soft but still piece-y and with a bit of texture. The time will vary according to the lentils you use, but it’s usually 20 minutes to a half an hour. Stir in the bouillon cube and set aside.
2 T butter, margarine or olive oil
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t rosemary
3 or 4 fresh sage leaves
1 shallot, minced
3 or 4 mushrooms finely diced
1 smallish fennel bulb, trimmed and finely diced
1/2 turnip, peeled, trimmed, and finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine
1 pinch nutmeg
Pinch of smoked paprika
1 T flour or cornflour
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
Warm the butter or oil in a largish saucepan. Add the pepper flakes, rosemary, sage leaves and shallots. Stir and fry until the shallots start to brown and caramelize–five or ten minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir and fry until they start to brown, add fennel, stir and fry till it starts to brown and soften, add the turnip, turn and fry till it starts to brown and soften. If everything starts to stick to the pan add a little more butter/margarine/olive oil or a splash of wine. Cook for ten or fifteen minutes on medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft and caramelly brown.
Add the garlic, paprika and nutmeg. Stir to coat, and then add the white wine before the garlic and spices burn. Cook to reduce the wine. Add the flour and stir to coat. Add a big ladle of broth and stir and cook till everything is combined and there are no lumps of flour. Add a bit more broth, stir and cook. Then add all of the lentils and the remainder of the broth. Stir well so that everything is combined and cook until most of the liquid is cooked off, but it’s still a bit saucy. Season with salt and lots and lots of freshly ground pepper.
Dash of olive oil
1 1/2 cups baby spinach, finely chopped
splash balsamic vinegar
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
In a large frying pan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the spinach and cook until it’s wilted. Add as much broth or water as you like if it starts to dry out. Add the balsamic, salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 450
Scant 2 cups flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/2 t. black pepper (or as much as you feel like grinding!)
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced (or margarine) (plus more for the pan)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk (or regular milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice in it, which is what I always use!) Or non-dairy milk plus a teaspoon of lemon juice.
Mix the flour, bp, bs, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Cut in the butter, and mix till it resembles crumbs. Don’t be afraid to use your hands!!
Stir in the buttermilk. Mix well. It should be quite thick, but thin enough that you can dollop it, if you know what I mean. You want it to be dollopable.
Put a small bit of butter in the bottom of each cup of a muffin pan. Warm in the oven while it preheats, but be careful not to burn the butter. Drop little mounds of batter into each cup. I use a Tablespoon, and probably do two or three heaping spoonfuls for each one. You can make them as large or small as you like, though. Just watch the baking time!
Cook in a preheated 450 degree oven for about 15 minutes (less if they’re smaller). They should just start to brown on top when they’re ready to be eaten.
Cut each biscuit in half and place in a shallow bowl. Top with the gravy, and serve with greens and potatoes on the side.