BY DANIEL NEMAN
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH/TNS
Many cultures look to New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day as a time to hope for prosperity. That is why many cultures celebrate with a pot of beans or lentils, which, because there are so many of them in a serving, represent abundance.
Other cultures focus on the end-of-year, beginning-of-year theme of continuity, by specifically serving foods that are round.
And some cultures combine these two ideas by placing a prize — often a coin — inside a round cake or bread. Whoever gets the piece with the prize or coin is said to be assured of wealth and good luck in the coming year.
That’s the case with the Greek tradition of serving Vasilopita.
Vasilopita is named for St. Basil, whose feast day is Jan. 1 for the Eastern church and Jan. 2 for the Western. Practically every family in Greece has its own recipe for Vasilopita, but the one I baked from “Food from Many Greek Kitchens” is truly stunning.
This elegant cake is dense and not too sweet. It is flavored with the zest of orange and lemons, scented with vanilla and brandy, and graced with a hint of almonds. It can also be beautiful; it is traditionally decorated with sliced almonds in a pretty pattern or with powdered sugar sifted over a doily.
I chose to decorate mine in another traditional method for the New Year, cutting out the numbers of the year 2018 to use as a stencil, with powdered sugar flurried over the cake. When I removed the numbers, their crisp image was clear in the sugar, reminding all of the reason for the celebration.
South’s Hoppin’ John
For my next New Year’s inspiration, I looked to the American South, where I can attest that Hoppin’ John is indeed a staple of the holiday. Hoppin’ John is nothing less than black-eyed peas cooked with a ham hock, and yet it is also, somehow, so much more.
Perhaps it is the fact that this simple dish of ham-and-beans is made with 16 ingredients, proof of the extra care that is taken for the New Year’s celebrations. Even so, it is just beans cooked with ham and mirepoix (onion, carrot and celery), spiced with a hot pepper and flavored with a bay leaf and thyme, served on basmati rice.
Typically, Hoppin’ John is served on plain white rice, but the recipe I used gets great mileage out of the basmati substitution. Even better is this brilliant idea: It uses the flavored water that the beans were cooked in to also cook the rice. These simple tricks elevate an everyday dish to a comforting treat worthy of the new year.
Italy’s Polenta with Lentils
In Italy, the holiday is also often celebrated with a plate of beans, only in this case it is sometimes lentils. The lentils are frequently cooked with sausage, but because that is too close in concept to Hoppin’ John, I decided instead to go the vegetarian route with Polenta with Lentils in Tomato Sauce.
What could be more Italian than that?
It’s a straightforward dish, lentils plus garlic plus mirepoix plus tomatoes on polenta, but I made my own version of it fancier by pan-frying the polenta. All it takes is the forethought to make the polenta the night before. By morning, it can be cut into wedges and then fried until it is crisp and golden on the outside, and creamy on the inside. It’s almost too good for lentils, but not quite.
Japan’s Toshikoshi Soba
Finally, I turned to Japan for a tradition that is said to assure a long life. Every New Year’s Eve, many Japanese eat Toshikoshi Soba, a noodle soup. The idea is that the noodles represent longevity, especially when they are slurped up without breaking them.
As with so many Japanese dishes, the base is dashi, a broth you can make yourself from bonito flakes, but I just used boiling water and a powder I bought at an international market. To this I added kaeshi, a blend of soy sauce, mirin and a little sugar that I did make myself.
Combined, the two have a marvelous umami taste that is the perfect backdrop for soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat.
If you want, you could just serve the dish as is, but much of the fun of Toshikoshi Soba is deciding which ingredients to add into it. Chopped green onions are almost required, but I also added spinach leaves, a very popular seven-ingredient red pepper spice called shichimi togarashi and thin, dried seaweed called nori.
In Japan, it is often served with fishcakes called kamaboko, which I once saw described as a Japanese version of gefilte fish. And I know one Japanese native who adds a raw egg, allowing the heat of the broth to cook it. That’s not necessarily typical, but she does it because she likes it.
Isn’t that how traditions begin?
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight or boiled 2 minutes and kept in the hot water for 1 hour
7 cups water
1 medium onion, cut into quarters
1 carrot, peeled and cut into quarters
1 celery rib, cut into quarters
1 smoked ham hock or 1/4 pound slab bacon
1 dried hot chile
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
Large pinch of kosher salt
2 cups basmati rice
3 scallions, chopped
2 tomatoes, halved, seeded and chopped
Several basil leaves, chopped or torn
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup tomato chutney or your favorite hot sauce
1. Wash and pick over the peas, removing any misshapen ones or pebbles. Place the peas in a large saucepan, add the water and bring to a simmer. Add the onion, carrot, celery, ham hock, chile pepper, bay leaf, thyme sprig and salt, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.
2. Drain the peas reserving the broth. Remove bay leaf, onion, carrot, thyme, pepper and celery. Remove meat from ham hock and chop into bite-sized pieces. Return peas and chopped meat to the pan, along with a little broth to keep them moist.
3. Transfer 31/2 cups of the reserved broth to a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the rice and cook until it is fluffy and tender and has absorbed almost all of the liquid, 16 to 18 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the rice continue to steam, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes while you reheat the peas. Add the remaining broth to the peas and reheat gently. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the rice to a serving bowl and spoon the warm peas and broth on top. Scatter the chopped scallions, tomatoes and basil over the peas. Drizzle everything with a little extra virgin olive oil and finish with a large dollop of the chutney.
Per serving (based on 6): 342 calories; 10 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 13 g protein; 49 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 541 mg sodium; 43 mg calcium
Adapted from “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table,” by Frank Stitt
POLENTA WITH LENTILS IN TOMATO SAUCE
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 cups medium-grind cornmeal
2/3 cup brown lentils
1 bay leaf
1 medium garlic clove
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced small
1 celery rib, diced small
1 (14.5-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Place 8 cups water in a large pot, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add 2 teaspoons salt and lower the heat to medium. Whisk in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream; this should take almost 2 minutes. Make sure to whisk the cornmeal continuously to prevent lumps from forming. Continue whisking as the cornmeal comes back to a boil. Simmer, whisking constantly, until the polenta starts to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes.
2. Reduce the heat until the polenta is at the barest simmer. Cover and cook very slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon every 10 minutes until the cornmeal loses its raw flavor, 35 to 40 minutes.
3. While the polenta is cooking, bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the lentils, bay leaf and garlic, and simmer over medium heat until the lentils are tender but still a bit firm, about 25 minutes. Drain, discard the bay leaf and garlic, and set aside.
4. While the lentils are cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, carrot and celery, and sauté over medium heat until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes.
5. Add the tomatoes. Simmer until the sauce thickens somewhat, about 10 minutes. Add the lentils and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to heat through. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. When the polenta has finished cooking, stir in the butter and add more salt if needed. Divide the polenta among large individual bowls. Spoon some of the lentils and sauce over each portion. Serve immediately with grated cheese passed separately at the table.
7. For extra elegance, make the polenta the night before and refrigerate it in a couple of skillets, making sure the polenta is no more than an inch or so thick. The day you are serving the dish, slice the polenta into wedges and pan fry a few wedges at a time in plenty of butter over medium-high heat. Cook on one side until golden brown and lightly crispy, then flip and cook until the other side is the same.
Per serving (based on 6): 345 calories; 13 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 11 g protein; 50 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 10 g fiber; 121 mg sodium; 58 mg calcium
Adapted from “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Jack Bishop.
TOSHIKOSHI SOBA (YEAR-END NOODLE SOUP)
Yield: 6 servings
6 ounces dried soba noodles
5 cups basic dashi stock (homemade, or buy the powdered form)
3/4 cup soy sauce
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) mirin
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Kamaboko (fish cakes), optional
Shichimi togarashi (seven-ingredient red-pepper spice), optional
Nori seaweed, optional
1 green onion, finely chopped
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add soba noodles and lower the heat to a simmer; do not cook in a rolling boil. Cook until the noodles are cooked through but still chewy, about 3 minutes. Drain the noodles immediately and rinse in a bowl of cold water. Change the water several times to remove all starch from the surface of the noodles. Place in a colander and set aside.
2. Make the dashi stock in a large pot and add the soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Heat, and when the stock is hot, add the soba noodles; simmer gently until they are heated through.
3. Place noodles into serving bowls and add soup. Add any of the optional toppings you desire; if using eggs, make sure the soup is very hot before cracking the egg into the bowl — the heat of the soup will somewhat cook the egg. Garnish with the chopped green onions.
Per serving (without optional ingredients): 143 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 7 g protein; 25 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 2,089 mg sodium; 33 mg calcium
Adapted from justhungry.com
Yield: 12 servings
1 coin, such as a quarter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (1 large orange)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/4 cup brandy
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup blanched almonds, finely chopped
Powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 113/4-inch springform cake pan. Thoroughly wash the coin with soap and water until it is impeccably clean. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a bowl.
2. Whip the butter and sugar together with handheld beaters in a large bowl until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each one. Beat in the vanilla and the orange and lemon zests. In turn, fold in one-third of the dry ingredients, the brandy, another third of the dry ingredients, the milk and the remaining dry ingredients. Fold in the almonds. Scrape into the springform pan. Drop in the coin, trying to keep it upright, not flat.
3. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire cake rack to cool completely.
4. Put a doily on top of the cake and dust with powdered sugar before removing it to reveal a lacy pattern. You can also cut a stencil of the numbers of the new year and dust that.
Per serving: 402 calories; 18 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 99 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 52 g carbohydrate; 27 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 168 mg sodium; 115 mg calcium
Recipe from “Food from Many Greek Kitchens,” by Tessa Kiros