As anyone who has known me longer than one full year knows, I hate New Year’s Eve. No, I don’t merely hate it. I loathe it. I loathe the counting backwards to the inevitable anticlimax, I loathe the freight of expectations that can only end in rapid disillusionment, and I loathe the desperate pressure to find someone to partner with, no matter how momentarily, just to avoid being the only loser with no one to kiss at midnight.
New Year’s Eve is a stupid pointless holiday based around a completely arbitrary turning of the clock within an archaic and irrational calendar. (A sensible calendar would put the start of a new year either at the solstice OR some time in the spring, not two weeks after the solstice and before two to four more months of bleak nothingness). There’s nothing special about staying up past midnight or getting blitzed on champagne. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of this holiday is to get people to drink too much and reflect on their inadequacies so that they can start the next year hung over and loaded with guilt that the diet, exercise, self-improvement and finance industries can milk for the next month and a half.
Since I’m also usually in a post-Christmas, pre-return-to-work funk by this time, while everyone else is wearing silly glasses and hats and waiting for the big glass sphere to fall, I’m either stewing in my own bile and pontificating about the contrived inanity of it all, or defiantly asleep before midnight.
Mind you, I’ve never let my personal bitterness stand in the way of a good meal, so that doesn’t mean I don’t also mark the random turning with food. Indeed, a good murky black mood can be a piquant seasoning. This year it seasoned an easy and yummy dinner of lentils in red wine and aggressively garlicky mashed potatoes, with sausages for His carnivorous Lordship.
The lentils have become a New Year’s tradition by default chez Disdain. Although we never had them for the holiday while I was growing up, some years back I learned that it’s an Italian tradition to eat lentils on New Year’s, since their round shape evokes coins and therefore prosperity in the coming year. I don’t put much stock in sympathetic magic, but as I both love lentils and am mostly Italian, I seized the excuse to make one of my favorite winter dishes. I’ve been making the same recipe from Deborah Madison’s The Savory Way since college, and despite dabbling with other versions, this is still by far the best use of lentils and red wine that I’ve ever found. It’s unpretentiously sophisticated, basically effortless, and wonderful as a side dish or the center of a meal.
I can’t make you share my contempt for the stupid pointless holiday, but everyone I’ve shared this recipe with has loved it, and there are plenty of winter days left for you to make this warming dish.
Braised Lentils in Red Wine, for New Year’s or any other arbitrary winter’s day
(Adapted from Deborah Madison, The Savory Way)
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish
1 cup French green lentils
1 tablespoon each butter and olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon tomato paste
2 cups hearty red wine
1 1/2 cups water
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Wine, sherry or balsamic vinegar to taste
Heat the butter and olive oil in a wide skillet and add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and half the parsley. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the onions have begun to color. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the wine, bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute.
Add the lentils, water, and a sprinkle of salt. Return to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer until the lentils are tender, approximately 40 minutes.
When the lentils are done, add salt, vinegar (to sharpen), pepper, and the remainder of the parsley.
Notes: I find I rarely need to add much more than a splash of vinegar at the end because the wine boils down and has enough acidity by itself, so you could probably omit it altogether. I prefer to use green French or black beluga lentils because they keep their shape better than ordinary brown lentils, but the latter will taste just as good if that’s all you have on hand.