Wow, look at this. Sophia all glammed up for New Year’s Eve, and she doesn’t bother to shave her armpits. What beautifully Italian sentiment. I didn’t shave my armpits until I was about 20. I was a superstitious hippie child who thought it would bring me bad vibes.
I still have a strain of pagan superstition running through my Southern Italian blood. Good and evil spirits sprung from the earth and sky have a pull on me. I do everything I can to attract good spirits.
On News Year’s Day Italians in many regions eat lentils. They’re thought to resemble coins, and eating them, according to custom, brings you wealth and good fortune in the new year. Who would want to gamble with that? Not me, I tell you.
In Italy, good-luck lentils are usually served with cotechino, a big, juicy pork sausage, or a stuffed pig’s trotter called zampone. Those are grand pairings, but this year I felt like lightening it up. I wanted fish with my lentils, though the fish had to be substantial. Monkfish has an almost lobstery texture and sweet taste that I love. For this recipe I bought a whole, thick fillet and roasted it as I would a piece of tender beef. I figured it would be luxurious enough to sit in the place of honor on top of my good luck lentils. And I added rosemary that pulls the dish further into the realm of deep and wintry. I’m happy with this. And I’m convinced it will attract lots of good vibes.
I go out of my way to find French or Italian lentils for certain dishes. They stay firm. American and Indian ones are perfect for soup, since they break down into a slightly lumpy purée, but for this dish I wanted ones with integrity and beauty that would cook up looking like the little coins they’re supposed to signify. Umbrian lentils are usually a pretty mottled tan. Le Puy lentils from France are a lovely shade of light gray-green that I’ve always thought would make a perfect living room paint color. Both varieties are fairly easy to locate in good grocery stores.
Good luck to all my Italian cooking fanatic friends out there, and a happy and prosperous New Year.
Rosemary Roasted Monkfish with Leeks and Lentils
2 cups Italian or French lentils
1 bay leaf, fresh if available
2 pounds monkfish fillet (one big fillet is best for slicing, but two smaller ones will work fine)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
10 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
6 large rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus a handful of sprigs for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, the white and tender light green parts only, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup homemade or good-tasting prepared chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 dozen or so red grape tomatoes
Place the lentils in a medium pot. Cover them with cool water by at least 3 inches. Add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to medium low, and cook at a low bubble, uncovered, until the lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, and remove the bay leaf.
Rub the monkfish fillets all over with the fennel seed, half the chopped thyme, half the rosemary, and salt and black pepper, and set them aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, carrot, and celery, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté about a half minute longer. Add the lentils and the rest of the chopped thyme and rosemary, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute to blend the flavors. Add the mustard and the chicken broth. Give it a good stir and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add the red wine vinegar.
In an ovenproof skillet (cast iron is perfect), heat a generous drizzle of olive oil on medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the monkfish, and brown on both sides. Place the grape tomatoes around the fish. Transfer the fish to the oven, and roast until it’s just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes, depending on its thickness. Take the fish from the oven, and cut it into thick slices on an angle.
Pour the lentils out onto a curve-sided serving plate. Place the fish slices on top. Scatter the tomatoes around the fish. Drizzle with fresh olive oil, and garnish with rosemary sprigs.