Over the Christmas holiday, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary, pretty much eating my way through my wanderings. As an Ashkenazi Jew, and therefore someone with roots in this region of the world, I immediately felt a connection to the cuisine I found in these countries: warming, long-cooking dishes like goulash, stuffed cabbage and a wide variety of soups, as well as a mind-boggling array of delicious pastries, many stuffed with sweetened poppyseeds, a popular (and my favorite) filling for hamentaschen cookies, traditionally made during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
It being the end of the year, though, the one dish that you could find anywhere and that was advertised everywhere (especially on New Year's Day) was lentil soup. All over the world, it's traditional to eat legumes on the first of January: they symbolize money, and so are eaten in the hopes of assuring a financially propitious year. We Americans might be most familiar with Hoppin' John, a dish of blackeyed peas stewed with pork that's commonly consumed in the south, but all over Europe, including Italy, Germany, and the central European countries I visited, lentils are the number one New Year's Day meal.
I didn't actually eat any lentil soup in Budapest, the city where I rang in 2011, but the little green legume lodged itself in my mind, because I found myself craving it ever since I returned to Toulouse. I found the perfect occasion to prepare a lentil dish when my birthday, the 9th of January, rolled around. As anyone who follows this blog knows, on my birthday my preferred means of celebration is to fix a big, inexpensive meal and invite all my friends over. Usually the celebration is a porkfest (and, incidentally, pork is another auspicious food oft prepared for the New Year's meal). But although pork butt is cheap, my funds this year were even more limited than usual, having just returned from a vacation and all, and I set my sights on a meal that though still tasty, would cost me almost nothing. And what fits the bill for that? Why, legumes, of course. So I whipped up some hummus, an old standard of mine, and I improvised a lentil salad made with roasted red peppers and shallots. I felt it was appropriately French--they eat a lot of lentils over here, especially the little green ones which I suppose best symbolize money--and what's more, my buddies seemed to enjoy it, too:
Lentil Salad with Potatoes, Red Peppers and Shallots
Serves 8 - 10 as a side dish
- 2 cups green lentils, rinsed
- 4 medium new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a medium dice
- 1 red bell pepper
- 3 shallots, peeled and sliced into paper-thin half-moons
- 1 lemon
- Red wine vinegar
- Olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Rub the red pepper with a small amount of oil, place it in a small baking dish, and roast in the oven, turning occasionally, until the skin is blackened and the flesh is soft, about 20 minutes. Remove dish from oven and tent with foil.
2. Meanwhile, cook the lentils. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, then add the lentils. Drop to a simmer and cook lentils, stirring occasionally, until they are tender but still al dente, about 20 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
3. Place the diced potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Add 1/2 tsp. salt. Bring to a boil, drop to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are cooked through but still firm, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain.
4. When pepper is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, open it up and discard the seeds and ribs. Slice into thin strips.
5. Combine the lentils, potatoes, red pepper and sliced shallots in a large salad bowl. Add the juice of 1 lemon. Add about 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar and about 4 tbsp. olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Taste the salad and adjust flavorings as necessary: it might need more vinegar, oil, salt or pepper. The salad is best if it sits for a few hours and absorbs the dressing. Before serving, taste again and adjust seasonings as necessary.