Feeling good


"It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life/And I’m feeling good…" -Nina Simone

Moreover, it’s a new year, and I’m feeling good. Good about the year’s prospects. Good about where I am, and where I’m going. Good.

I’m an optimistic person by nature, and not especially superstitious, but that didn’t stop me from preparing and eating a traditional New Year’s Day meal that’s meant to inspire good fortune for the upcoming 365.

Many people know about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens; in fact it was a popular topic on the food blogs. Fewer people are aware that Italians have a beany tradition all their own, involving lentils. And me, I have to Italian everything up a bit.

The real traditional dish involves cotechino, a pork sausage. I hadn’t planned that far ahead, and just stuck with some (very good) Niman Ranch applewood-smoked bacon. The greens were Swiss chard purchased from the farmer’s market on Saturday, prepared how I always do them, with garlic, chili flake and lemon. Oh, and bacon.

The bread was also homemade, and really excellent. But I feel it deserves a post of its own, so stay tuned for that.

It’s not pretty food (the colors got some enhanced saturation thanks to the magic of Photoshop), and certainly not food I would serve company. But the flavors were solid and the overall dish was humble, hearty and satisfying. Good, even.

Just Lentils
I love lentils. They’re flavorful (more so than most legumes), easy to cook and have a fun and playful texture, like starchy caviar. I tend to prefer my lentils on the al dente side, but DPaul likes them softer. Depending on your preference, the cooking time can vary upwards of 15 minutes.

The Niman Ranch bacon is tremendous and very thickly cut. If you’re using standard bacon, sub in two or three slices. However, the thick-cut bacon adds not only great flavor but a nice, meaty texture to the dish. Keep the bacon frozen or very well refrigerated for easy cutting.

1 slice thick-cut bacon or pancetta, cut into small dice
1 carrot, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 small fennel bulb (or 1 stalk celery), finely diced
1 c. green lentils
2 c. stock or water
1 bay leaf
good pinch herbes de provence or other dry herbs
salt and pepper

Rince the lentils in a strainer. Add the bacon to a cold pan and heat over medium flame. When the fat has rendered and the bacon has begun to crisp all over, add the onions, carrot and fennel. Cook until the onions are translucent, about five minutes. Add the lentils, toss to combine and add enough stock to cover well, plus the bay leaf, herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid on and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-30 minutes, adding stock if necessary as the lentils absorb the liquid. Stir occasionally.

Just Chard
This is actually my preferred method of cooking most green things; in fact it’s more or less the same recipe we included in our cookbook only using broccoli. This will work with any dark, leafy green, broccoli, green beans or even asparagus. The garlic-chili-lemon trifecta plays well with many ingredients. You can replace the bacon with olive oil for a vegetarian version that doesn’t suffer unduly.

I don’t like my greens to be cooked down to a brownish lump; I prefer that they still have some structure. Cooking the chopped stems a little longer helps make them tender, but brief, hot cooking ensures the greens will remain al dente and flavorful. Tougher greens, like collards and kale, may take longer to cook through.

1 large bunch Swiss chard
1/2 lemon
1 slice thick-cut bacon, cut into small dice
1 tsp red pepper flake
3-4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
salt and pepper

Rinse the chard leaves thoroughly and dry with a paper towel; it’s OK if a little water clings to the greens. Fold the leaves over in half and cut away the tough spine from the more tender leafy green part. Cut the spines into 1/2" slices, and cut or tear the leafy bits into roughly 1" squares.

Add bacon to a cold pan and heat over medium flame. When the fat has rendered and the bacon has begun to crisp all over, add the garlic and pepper flake. When the garlic has begun to brown, add the chopped stems and cook for two minutes or so. Add the leaves, and squeeze the half lemon over everything. Add a pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper, tossing everything together with tongs. Reduce heat to low and cover to wilt the greens. When the greens have thoroughly wilted, in about five minutes, taste and season as necessary. If they are not sufficiently tart (and I do like them a bit on the sour side), squeeze more lemon juice or add 1 Tbsp vinegar. Serve immediately, or continue to braise over low heat if a more cooked-down texture is desired. 

  • Tea

    This sounds so good! I seriously may run out for some lentils right now. Does the good luck still work if it’s a day late?
    Happy 2007 to you two.

  • Well, I’m sure you’ll get at least a discounted amount of luck. I mean, if you only get 364 days of luck out of the year, that’s not so bad, is it?

  • Everything’s better with bacon! (And doesn’t pork also figure into the good-luck scheme of things?)

  • You totally can serve it to people. If they don’t like it, then let them know their other option is a dish you like to call “Guess what it used to be?”
    That’ll shut ’em up.

  • Texan: I’m sure the pig would disagree with you …
    Garrett: It’s true, I do occasionally serve shut-up-and-eat-it food, but I mostly try to pretty it up a bit. Still, I don’t think many people would complain about the flavors here. However, I’m more likely to serve each thing individually as sides to a meaty main.

  • I wanted to wish you and DPaul a wonderful and “Happy New Year!” Also, although I didn’t win the “Cookin’ at the Castello,” I have loved the little excerpts you’ve posted for your blog readers. Delicious!

  • Mom

    Well, Sean, your cooking is much like that of your grandmother’s (my mother) except that you add a little gourmet flair to everything that you cook – somthing she really didn’t do. And I cook much like her. So where did you get that gourmet flair from? Certainly not from the “home cookin'” you got while growin up.
    The good news is – eating at your house is always such a pleasure, not only for the good food, but for the company as well.

  • Well there you have it, gentle readers — I’ve skipped a generation, and am becoming my grandmother.