The New Year is a time rich in superstitions, wherever you are in the world, and many of those superstitions involve food. In Hungary, you’d be doing yourself a disservice for the rest of the year if you didn’t eat plenty of lentils to ring in the new year. And to increase your chances for luck and success in the coming year, you should also eat roasted pork and kocsonya (pork aspic) with your lentils. Since pigs symbolize progress, the pork will bring you luck. As in many other cultures, lentils and legumes—which are round and disk-shaped, resembling coins—will bring you wealth. Whatever you do, just don’t eat chicken (which will scratch away your luck) or fish (which will swim away with your luck). Though I’m not superstitious, I do love the comfort of food traditions (however silly they may sound). So I always look forward to the ritual of eating lentils on New Year’s day (why risk it!). Since the year is still young, and eating lentils shouldn’t be confined to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, I share this recipe for lentil főzelék. This is the way my mother-in-law prepares lentil főzelék, which she usually embellishes with roasted meat or sausage. Főzelék is a classic Hungarian vegetable preparation (usually served as a main course) in which sour cream and roux (rántás) are added to thicken cooked vegetables. It can be made of practically any type of vegetable, and it’s a frequently used cooking technique in Hungarian kitchens. Whether you are superstitious or not, this dish is perfect to eat throughout the winter.
3 cups of lentils
½ teaspoon salt
2 small onions, finely chopped (approximately 3 cups), divided
1 large garlic clove, chopped
2-3 bay leaves
Pinch of Marjoram (optional)
Pinch of black pepper
Lemon zest (optional)
1/4 cup sunflower oil
1/4 cup of flour
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
- Rinse the lentils, and soak them for about 30 minutes. Discard the water.
- Add the lentils to a pot and fill with enough water to cover them by an inch. Add the salt, half of the onions, bay leaves, marjoram, black pepper (if using), and lemon zest (if using). Cook for 20-30 minutes (or until the lentils are almost soft, adding water if needed. When the lentils are cooked, removed the pot from the heat but don’t discard the water in the pot.
- While the lentils cook, prepare the rántás. Heat the sunflower oil in a saucepan, add the remaining onions and the garlic, and sauté over low heat until they are translucent. Add the flour and sauté over medium-high heat for about one minute, while continually whisking. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for another minute, while still continually whisking. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the paprika (being careful not to let it burn). You may need to add a bit more oil to help the paprika dissolve. Cook, while continuously stirring, for about one more minute.
- Using a ladle, scoop a small amount of water from the cooked lentils and slowly add it to the rántás, constantly whisking it so it smoothly incorporates. Continue to do this until all of the water has been added and the rántás is creamy.
- Gently stir in the lentils. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to boil and then reduce the heat to low, simmering until the lentils are cooked through. Serve with sour cream and hot paprika on the side.