What will be the first dish that you eat on New Year’s Day? Will it involve fresh truffles, rare cheeses, dark chocolate or champagne? Or will you be using (out of season) strawberries, asparagus or morel mushrooms?
My first dish is always the same: a mixture of lentils and noodles. So why am I choosing such mundane ingredients in favour of luxurious ones? There are two reasons.
The first and foremost reason is: noodles represent longevity in Chinese and other Asian cultures and are always eaten at new year; whereas lentils are believed to bring good luck by people of Italy and other Mediterranean countries, and are traditionally eaten at new year, too. So if you combine noodles and lentils, you are bound to receive a double dose of longevity and luck. Not a bad start to the year!
The second reason is simply that after all the rich, heavy foods consumed during Christmas, this simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious dish brings me comfort and keeps me grounded. And if you have a reasonably well-stocked larder, you won’t have to do any shopping either.
The spices help to kick-start the post-festive jaded palate. I use rather a lot of spices, onions and garlic in this recipe – otherwise it would be plain and bland, as it has no main ingredients other than starch – but you can adjust the quantity to suit your taste.
Like Syrians, I like to eat this dish as it is. However, you can add fresh tomatoes while cooking; or serve it with a simple tomato sauce (not one with too many herbs), or plain yoghurt mixed with some fresh parsley. You may add a squeeze of lemon too, if you like. (If you use any of these suggested embellishments, you might want to reduce the quantity of spices – otherwise there could be too many clashing flavours).
Accompany with a bowl of soup and a crisp mixed salad; or serve with a platter of grilled Mediterranean vegetables – aubergines go especially well. Serves 4.
7 oz/ 175g whole brown or green lentils OR 1 x 16 oz can
1 level tablespoon cumin seeds
1 level tablespoon coriander seeds
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon hot red chilli powder or chilli flakes
8 oz/ 200g Middle Eastern rishta noodles (or thick vermicelli, egg noodles, wheat noodles, spaghetti, linguini or fettuccini)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped or finely sliced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper
2 oz/ 50g butter, melted
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
1. Wash the lentils, cook until tender (between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how old they are), and drain. If using tinned lentils, rinse and drain thoroughly.
2. In a small frying pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds, cloves, and cinnamon until they are just a few shades darker and become aromatic. Take care not to burn them. Let them cool a little, then crush them in a mortar or pulverize them in a spice grinder, along with allspice berries (which don’t need toasting). Add the chilli powder or flakes to the spice mixture, and set aside.
3. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and plunge in cold water to prevent them from cooking further.
4. In a wide, heavy saucepan, heat the oil on medium heat and cook the onions until they are golden brown. Turn the heat to very low, add garlic and spice mixture, and stir for a few minutes until it perfumes your kitchen. Make sure it doesn’t go too dark in colour, or it will taste bitter.
5. Add the cooked lentils, noodles and seasoning. Mix gently and thoroughly so that the noodles and lentils are evenly coated with spices.
6. Pour over the melted butter and garnish with parsley before serving.
WISHING ALL THE READERS A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!