Apicius 5.2.2 Lentils, Chestnuts

The yard has finally gotten with the program and begun to offer mint. It is spring, and we will be eating more green things. Yay!

It took a little doing, but I found a recipe that intrigues me in Apicius (Grocock and Grainger edition) which called mostly for ingredients we have. Apicius leans on several things we don’t keep for a variety of reasons, but this one lined up pretty well

This is another of those “problem” recipes in that the title calls for lentils, but the recipe does not. I opted to make the dish twice; once with and once without.

The next instruction called for “soda” in the English, but “nitrum” in Latin. Nitrum can be found described as salt, as a toxic salt, saltpeter, baking soda, nitrogen, and a number of other useless things. My impression, based on my understanding of Roman water transit and storage, is that something alkaline added to water helps soften beans, keep dishes cleaner, and otherwise make life more digestible. It is possible, and this is conjecture, that the instruction is to add something to the water as we modernly might add baking soda to soften beans, but it might be simple table salt as well.

Being that I know my lentils cook well in my water, I added salt for flavor, but did not add soda.


cooked peeled chestnuts, uncooked lentils, bottles of vinegar, fish sauce, honey, and oil, herbs and spices
What color bowls would have looked better?

I have precooked chestnuts. They are peeled, they are tender, and I am happy with their texture and ease of preparation. The lentils used are French green lentils, though brown flat lentils would have made more visual sense.

I cooked one cup of lentils in water with a little salt, and set them aside. After bringing the heat up on the chestnuts in water, I added the honey, vinegar and liquamen (I use an anchovy-based fish sauce), and allowed the pot to simmer until the chestnuts showed their readiness to fall apart. Then, with my pestle, I began to crush them.

Two things happen here. The “lentil” reference begins to make sense; it looks just like Dal, and the hot pan contents want to try to kill the cook. Be careful with splashing, it takes very little pressure to crush the chestnuts, which are now simmering in liquid honey. Boiling honey hurts a lot.

Chestnuts are very very starchy, so the pot thickened quite fast. I did add a little more water to the pot so it would not stick and burn.

In the “chestnut only” version, I crushed them as completely as I could allowing the pot to thicken as it could. In the “with lentils” variety, I first crushed them about halfway, until they looked like chopped walnuts, and served them alongside the lentils, then for the second portion, I crushed them further and folded the lentils in.

chestnuts in a pan, partly crushed.
ready to either be served or crushed further.
How do I post three images across? I’d like to make this tidy.

On tasting, I added a little more vinegar and a little more liquamen, then dropped the heat and folded in the mint and spice mixture.

I do not cook with rue, it’s one of the ones the herbalists warn about, and I do not wish for a bitter taste at this time. If I wished to enhance the bitterness, I would add a dandelion leaf , and if I wished to enhance the herbal note, I would add tarragon. I was holding the dandelion and put it back, it did not appeal at the moment. On the other hand, I did use pennyroyal, which is also an herb of concern. I grow it and like it, but do not usually feed it to others.

One of the spices called for is “laser”, which according to research seems to be most functionally similar to asafoetida. I like asafoetida. It ties together well with the fish sauce and adds a subtle note of character to a dish when used sparingly. If you have not used it, it’s interesting to play with, it’s the resin of a form of giant fennel. Too much of it can be quite appalling, a small amount can add an oniony note.

The oil added in cooking was far more utilitarian than the one I garnished with. The final oiling kept the top of the portion from drying out, and added another lovely layer of flavor.

Lentils served alongside chestnuts in a ceramic bowl.
one way to serve the dish
a thick porridge of chestnuts in a pottery bowl, showing fine flecks of fresh mint
I did not share this bowl.

Recipe: Apicius 5.2.2

Summary: Lentils, Chestnuts


  • 8 oz lentils.
  • 8 oz chestnuts, cooked and peeled (available in bags, jars, or frozen, or you might prefer to do the work)
  • 16 oz water
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ¼ tsp cumin
  • ¼ tsp coriander
  • ¼ tsp asafoetida
  • a small bunch of mint, about ¼ cup fresh
  • a couple of leaves of rue, or a dandelion leaf, or a little tarragon, if you wish
  • 1 TBS olive oil (for cooking)
  • 1 TBS honey
  • 2 Tbs red wine vinegar
  • 2TBS liquamen/fish sauce
  • 1 tsp olive oil (for garnish)


  1. Simmer the chestnuts prepared chestnuts in water with salt.
  2. Place spices and herbs into mortar and pestle, or spice grinder, and make small. You should have about 2 tablespoons when it’s all chopped up.
  3. Add honey to the simmering chestnuts.
  4. Once the honey dissolves, add the vinegar and fish sauce. Continue to simmer.
  5. When the pot begins to look cloudy, add the cooking oil and start crushing cautiously. You may choose to only break the nuts, or you may prefer to mash them as I did.
  6. Watch for sticking and add more water if needed.
  7. Taste for balance, add more of what your palate thinks it needs. Mine needed another splash of vinegar.
  8. Add the herbs and spices, fold in.
  9. Stir until it feels a little stiff but not too stiff, and plate.
  10. Pour a little of the garnish quality oil overtop, and serve.
  11. Add lentils, or serve alongside lentils, or add to lentils and fold in, or forget lentils entirely, as it makes sense to you.

Preparation time: 30 minute(s)

Cooking time: 15 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 2



+Mostly cheap and easy ingredients

+Low-stress cooking,

+Flexible recipe, tasty when served a variety of ways

-really needs the liquamen (vegan substitute; kelp and soy sauce)

-relies on a variety of seasonal herbs






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