Act IV: Chestnut-Lentil Stew with Bulgur Pilaf

And now back to filling my front page with Latin…

Lenticulam de castaneis. Accipies caccabum novum, et castaneas purgatas diligenter mittis. Adicies aquam et nitrum modice, facies ut coquatur. Cum coquitur, mittis in mortario piper, cuminum, semen coriandri, mentam, rutam, laseris radicem, puleium, fricabis. suffundis acetum, mel, liquamen, aceto temperabis, et super castaneas coctas refundis. adicies oleum, facies ut ferveat. cum bene ferbuerit, tudiclabis [ut in mortario teres]. gustas, si quid deest, addes. cum in boletar miseris, addes oleum viridem.
– Apicius, De Re Coquinaria V.ii.2

Translation: Take a new saucepan, put carefully peeled chestnuts in it, add water and a little soda and set it to cooking. While it is cooking, crush in the mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, laser root and pennyroyal. Moisten with vinegar, honey, and fish sauce; add vinegar to taste and pour over the cooked chestnuts. Add oil and bring to a boil. When it is simmering, crush the nuts as you would in the mortar. Taste to see if something is missing and if so, put it in. When you have put it in a serving dish, add green virgin oil.

This dish, as you can see, never actually mentions lentils. It crops up, however, in the “Lentils” subchapter of the Apicius section on grains and beans; scholars have decided that this chestnut puree was probably supposed to be added to the dish which follows. I’m sparing you the Latin, but here’s a translation: “Cook the lentils. When they have been skimmed, add leek and green coriander on top. Grind coriander seed, pennyroyal, laser, mint, and rue seed. Pour in vinegar, add honey, fish sauce, and wine and, flavor with wine must; add oil, and stir. Add anything missing, thicken with starch, pour on green oil, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.”

So, here I was with two recipes with partially overlapping ingredients…many of which (rue, pennyroyal, laser) I couldn’t find in grocery stores. Or even in the many specialty stores in New York. I really loved the idea of combining lentils and chestnuts, though, and I needed a vegetarian main course for guests not so into my bloody lamb roast…so I pulled a few things together.

For one thing, I totally cheated with the chestnuts: I really hate shelling them, and my corner grocery sells bags of vacuum-packed roasted nuts for $1.99. I pared the ingredient list down, generally, to make this dish more modern. The Roman penchant for adding honey and vinegar to everything really worked here, though: many modern recipes still add acid to lentils. The meatiness of the nuts balanced out the sweet-sour flavor. I chose to leave those nuts whole (to keep texture) instead of pounding them with a pestle as Apicius suggests. This dish was really easy and flavorful, and worked beautifully with a slightly adapted bulgur pilaf from Martha.

Lentil Stew (Serves 4)
1 c. red lentils
2 1/2 c. water
2 medium leeks, washed thoroughly and chopped
4 oz. roasted vacuum packed chestnuts
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. sherry or cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oil over a medium flame, add the garlic, and cook for about 30 seconds. Toss in the leeks and cook about 2 minutes, until they start to get tender.
2. Add the chestnuts, cumin, coriander, and pepper and stir a couple of times, then pour in the lentils and water.
3. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes until the lentils are tender. Add the honey and vinegar, mix thoroughly, cook a minute more, and serve over bulgur pilaf.

Toasted Bulgur Pilaf (Serves 4)
1 c. bulgur
3/4 c. vegetable stock
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Toast the bulgur over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant (4 to 5 minutes).
2. Pour in the stock and 3/4 cup water, and add the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer about 10-12 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed and the bulgur is tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve.