E, my Italian teacher, and I were having a laugh the other week. The subject of our hilarity concerned Italian salami. Not, I hasten to add, one of those smutty jokes about the size or firmness of sausages. Quite the reverse. We were talking about the lesser known soft, not to say floppy one, the cotechino.
Next lesson, E produced a parcel from her bag and (I'm choosing my words carefully here) presented me with one as a present. It has a consistency not unlike SPAM, the difference being that the ingredients are things that don't make you shudder when you read the list. A classic accompaniment to this and many other Italian sausages is a pan of braised lentils.
Green lentils that is. In Scotland we are more familiar with the red version, generally used for making soup. It cooks away to mush, as do those used in making daal. The green lentil, on the other hand, retains its shape for a good while, giving you, if you treat it right, a side dish of terrific texture. Like any legume, it can be bland, which is where the skill of the cook comes in.
The most famous green lentils come from Puy in France. It is said they have a more peppery flavour. Well, I have a pepper mill which can help. It can be difficult to find the real McCoy, and they are a lot more expensive. Generic green lentils, on the other hand, can be found in any supermarket. Most of them, curiously, come from Canada.
Essentially you sauté a mirepoix, add the lentils for a bit, then add liquid and cook gently until the lentils are al dente. That will get you an OK dish. There are few little touches which can elevate it.
The cotechino is generally sold in a sealed bag. On the outside there is quite a bit of fat and jelly. For an extra layer of flavour I scraped this off and used it in place of oil to soften the veg. Near the end of the cooking I also added a slice of very finely chopped cotechino. I would always use stock instead of water for the simmering. And, for a final flourish, a decent glug of balsamic vinegar at the end will be the cherry on the top. Some recipes add a little tomato purée. For me, the pleasure of this dish is its earthy quality. Adding tomato makes it too sweet for my preference.
Finally a word of caution about salt. With any dish involving lentils or other legumes, never add salt at the start as it makes them go tough. If you don't have home made chicken stock and are using a stockpot, you will be getting salt from that, as well as from the bacon. You may not need to add any at all.
Ingredients (serves 2)
120g green lentils; 1 banana shallot, very finely chopped; 1 medium carrot, very finely diced; 2 rashers of streaky bacon, very finely chopped; about 200 - 250ml chicken stock (have a little more in case); a little veg oil; glug of balsamic vinegar; s & p.
Rinse the lentils (no need to pre soak). Gently fry the shallot, carrot and bacon until the veg are soft. Season with some pepper (no salt at this stage). Stir in the lentils and cook for a further minute or two. Add enough stock to cover the ingredients, then bring to a simmer. You may need to top up the liquid, so keep and eye on them, stirring occasionally. The lentils will take about 30 - 35 minutes. Once they are nearly cooked. you may need to bring to a boil to get rid of any surplus liquid. Check the seasoning. Just before serving add a glug of balsamic vinegar (but don't overdo it).
I've advertised this as Cotechino with Lentils, but you can serve your lentils with sausages (preferably chunky Italian ones, or any from Castle Game), or with anything else you fancy.