Lentils with some sort of pork, various sausages, pigs feet, bacon, and other cuts, is a fairly common dish in Italy. It is traditionally served on the New Year, as it is believed to bring good fortune – the rounded shape of the lentils resembling coins. During a past bike trip to Umbria with Jody Adams, we prepared the famous Umbrian Castellucio lentils with sausages we grilled over a wood fire.
Lentils have been part of our cuisine since 13000 BC (yes, BC). The Roman writers Juvenal, Martial and Apicius all describe various lentil dishes. Throughout human history, the lentil has been a popular substitute for meat, especially among the poorer classes.
Today we don’t suffer from a lack of access to meat, but lentils are a great source of nutrition, especially for those that are trying to cut back on meat. With 26% of its calories coming from protein, lentils have the third highest level of protein of any plant based food, behind soy and hemp. They also contain dietary fiber, folate, vitamin B1, minerals, and the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine.
Most recipes for this dish of lentils and sausage would be titled “Sausage and Lentils”. But for any of you familiar with the Mediterranean Diet pyramid, meats are at the top (i.e. eat less frequently) and beans and legumes toward the bottom (eat more of these). And as many visitors to Italy may observe, meat portions there are much smaller than what you would find at a US steakhouse! Meats are used to complement, not overwhelm the remaining foods on the plate.
I admit, I love meat and don’t feel the need to apologize for enjoying it. And I feel better when I have a reasonable amount of protein in my diet. I am quite active, skiing or cycling daily combined with strength workouts, and feel that having adequate protein in my diet is important to muscle recovery. I try to consume a little at each meal, and some within a half hour after my morning workout. But I like to consume it in reasonable amounts – 6 ounces at a time is probably my maximum when I indulge in something really great – and 4 ounces is my usual.
So for the recipe, I recommend four 4 ounce sausages to serve 4 people; other similar recipes usually have two per person. But this makes plenty of lentils that are quite filling, and with the addition of roasted garlic, quite flavorful.
Only two of us ate this, so I had plenty of leftovers. The next day for lunch the lentils and cut-up sausage went into a soup pot, I added chicken broth and some blanched kale I had frozen this autumn, and I had a warm soup for lunch in about 10 minutes. Topped with grated Grana Padano cheese and a drizzle of olive oil – delicious.
Lentils with Roasted Garlic and Sausage
1 head garlic
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 leek, white part only, sliced lengthwise then thinly sliced, swirled in a bowl of water to remove grit
1 carrot, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 stalk celery, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/2 red onion, cut into 1/4 inch dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups (14 ounces) lentils
2 bay leaves
10 or so parsley stems
4 4-ounce sausages
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Using a serrated knife, cut the top off of the entire head of garlic. The goal is to exposed the tops of most of the cloves, while keeping the head intact. Take a sheet of aluminum foil and wrap it around the bottom of the head of garlic, leaving the top showing the exposed cloves open. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the cloves, and place the head in the oven. Roast until the cloves are tender, about 30 minutes. You can squeeze the head a bit to check for doneness – the cloves will be pretty mushy and start to pop out of their peels. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Turn the oven to broil. Cut the tomatoes in half, and place cut side down on a sheet pan. Place the tomatoes under the broiler and cook until skin is beginning to blacken and blister. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the skin and the core. Squeeze out the seeds, and chop the tomato flesh into 1/4 inch pieces.
Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and heat over medium high heat. Add the leek, carrot, celery and onion. Saute until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the lentils, and cover with water by about 1 inch. Add the bay leaves and the parsley stems. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to low and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. This time will vary, depending upon the type and age of the lentil, so keep checking rather than relying on time. Keep the lentils covered with water while cooking; the goal here is to have the liquid just absorbed when the lentils are just finishing up. If excess water remains, turn up the heat to reduce it.
While the lentils are cooking, place the sausages in a small saute pan and saute them over medium heat until just cooked through. Remove from heat.
Take the garlic head out of the foil. Using your fingers, squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of their peels and place into a small bowl. Mash the roasted garlic with the back of a fork.
When the lentils are done, remove the bay leaves and parsley stems. Add the roasted garlic and chopped tomatoes. Add the red wine vinegar and the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Rewarm the sausages if necessary. Slice on the diagonal, and serve in a bowl on a bed of lentils. Drizzle with olive oil.