Here’s one answer to the perennial post-Christmas question: what to do with the leftover ham? As we all know, pork and legumes have a natural affinity, so why not pair ham and lentils in this rather loose riff on a cassoulet?
First, simmer some lentils—about 100g (4 oz.) per serving—in abundant water (enough to cover the lentils by at least 5 cm/2 inches) together with a clove or two of garlic.
While the lentils are cooking, sauté some onion in olive oil until soft and translucent, then make a roux by adding a bit of flour and allowing it to cook in the oil for a few minutes. Then, off heat, add some nice, rich broth. (Use about one tablespoon of flour and 250ml/one cup of broth per serving.) Put the pot back on the heat and bring it to the boil. It will thicken up as it heats. Once at the boil, immediately lower the heat and allow this sauce to simmer for a few minutes.Once the lentils are just tender, add them to the sauce and mix well. You should have a rather soupy mixture; if not, add additional broth or water.
Now it is time to assemble your casserole. Rub the casserole (I like often use an enameled cast iron Dutch oven or risotto pot, but a terracotta casserole would also be ideal.) Rub the casserole with a garlic clove, then add in your lentil mixture. Take a few nice thick slices of ham—one or two per serving— and nestle them among the lentils, along with a sprig of fresh thyme and perhaps a bay leaf if you like. Cover with a generous layer of breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil.
Place the casserole in a hot oven and bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the top is nicely golden brown and the liquid mostly (but not entirely) absorbed. The breadcrumbs will form a kind of crust as they brown; break the crust at least once during baking to allow the juices to mix with the breadcrumbs—it makes for a much more flavorful and moister crust. Remove the casserole from the oven and allow the casserole to rest for a few minutes to allow the bubbling to subside and serve.
As I have mentioned before, lentils are my favorite legume. Angelina’s pasta e lenticchie was my favorite pasta when I was growing up. For my money, the lentille du Puy is the ne plus ultra of lentils—it holds up to cooking and retains its shape, texture and flavor beautifully. Ordinary green lentils are easily overcooked, and tend to fall apart, both their texture and flavor become rather stodgy. In Italy, the lentil of choice is the famed lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia, grown only in a certain area straddling Umbria and Abruzzo protected by an IGP designation. (Unfortunately, I’ve not found a source for lenticchie di Castelluccio in the US, but lentilles du Puy are fairly easy to find at better markets.
The only real trick to this dish is to make sure it doesn’t dry out too much in the cooking. The lentil mixture should, as mentioned, be rather ‘soupy’, more than you may think, remembering that the liquid will be absorbed by the lentils and evaporate as it simmers—you need to compensate for both processes. But if you see that the casserole is drying out before it is ready, no worries: just add some simmering water. Of course, like a real cassoulet (which was another favorite dish that I want to blog about very soon) you can nestle other meats into this dish, including sausages or bits of a roast or stew.
This dish is almost a meal in itself—and definitely a piatto unico. Last night we followed it with a green salad, some roquefort cheese, and a dessert of pere al vino rosso.By the way, if you prefer, you can make a wonderful soup by simply adding more water or broth, and cutting up your ham into bite-sized pieces. Rather than baking, just allow the lentils and ham to simmer together, covered for about 30 minutes and serve, with un filo d’olio on top. (Also a nice way to ‘recycle’ the casserole if you have any leftover.)Lentils are closely associated with New Years in Italian cuisine—typically served with a stuffed pig’s trotter known as zampone or with a similar sausage called cotechino. But more of that in another post…