Archive for the ‘Lentils / Chickpeas / Legumes’ Category

Travel | The lentils of Castelluccio

13 November 2013

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The best thing I ate in Italy was a bowl of lentil soup. This is not to disparage all the other wonderful, perhaps more refined things we enjoyed there, but this was, quintessentially, a perfect meal.

We went to Umbria this summer to attend the wedding of two very close friends. Many of the guests, like us, took the opportunity to spend a few days or, as we did, a full week in the somewhat remote and very beautiful region.

The festivities were to take place on a Saturday in a small paradise of an agriturismo (farm-hotel) outside Norcia. We’d barely arrived, quite a bit later than planned, on the Friday evening, when we were swept off for an improvised dinner in town with a hodgepodge of guests. We ordered chaotically, dined boisterously, and drove the waiters mad as our posse of children challenged local Italian kids for a football match in the piazza. It was cliché like a recent Woody Allen film, just with many many more children. It was great. I don’t remember what I ate that evening.

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Two days after the wedding the feted couple organized a hike up Monte Vettore, the highest peak of the Sibillini range, the mountains against which Norcia is nestled. The road from Norcia winds up the lush forested mountainside to a crest, which, on the other side, reveals a large, treeless plateau encircled by higher peaks. It’s an unexpected sight. Off in the distance to the North, an earth-toned village perched amid the towering hills presides, alone.

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I didn’t, at first, realize where I was. Not when everyone stopped their cars, awestruck by the symphony of colors, patchworked in neat rectangles all over the valley. Surely they didn’t grow flowers up here? Only when our host explained that the flowers grow wild among the lentils, did it hit me: Castelluccio, of course! I know the lentils of Castelluccio, world famous little pulses often mentioned in the the same breath as French Puy lentils. If I think carefully, I even remember that Simone comes from the region of Castelluccio and some years ago brought us a bag of precious lentils from a home trip. Here we are — amazing!

As I witnessed and have now learned, Castelluccio lentils are grown in this valley without the use of pesticides, using an old tradition of three-year crop rotation alternating lentils, cereals (spelt, barley), and pasture. In 1997 Castellucio received the geographical protection certificate from the European Union. Only lentils marked Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia — IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are guaranteed to come from this plateau. ‘Norcia’ or ‘Umbrian lentils’ most likely do not.

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But we had a mountain to climb. A veritable caravan set off — adults, children, small children, babies — little groups trickling up the mountain path. Some were faster than others; not everyone made it to the top. For a while I tried to catch up with Leo, who had scampered off with a group of eager mountaineers, but as they receded ever farther up I thought better to wait for those lower down who were carrying Louise. It was a serious hike. A hike where, at some, you stop speaking to your companions for lack of breath. Where your mind starts to wander over the scenery, conjuring up the Mediterranean in the distance. The kind of hike that makes you hungry.

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It feels as though I practically ran down that mountain, even with Louise on my back, as the light deepened, probably because by then I knew what awaited at the ‘merenda’ (afternoon snack) planned in Castelluccio.

We were not the first to arrive, to plonk down wearily on the wooden benches with sprawling views of the valley below, and immediately a large plate of lentil soup arrived. It was very simple, with a half-submerged slice of bread and generous drizzle of olive oil. It tasted, as far as my ravenous palate could tell, mainly and, most deliciously, of lentils. It was probably the best soup I had ever eaten. That first bowl, and a second one, and most of Louise’s as well. The salumi and cheeses that followed are completely forgotten in the shadow of that soup.

Seeing the crops, trudging up Monte Vettore for hours, overlooking the fields and village, before digging into a bowl of soup made of the fruit of this sumptuous valley. That was perfect.

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I asked Simone for his mom’s lentil soup recipe, which she was most kind to share. Here it is, exactly as is. It should resemble very closely the one we had in Castelluccio. Mille grazie!

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“I’m glad to export the recipe for lentils: here is how I do it, but the variations are many.

Ingredients: lentils, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, sausage if you wish. Water: 1 1/4 lt. for 500 gr. of lentils.

Castelluccio lentils do not need preliminary soaking; for other kinds read instructions.

Rinse the lentils thoroughly. Put in a pot with cold water: lentils, onion, celery, carrot and salt. The amount of water must be such as to be absorbed during the cooking and the absorption may be different between the types of lentils; if they are too dry, add more boiling water. Boil over low heat for as long as is recommended by instructions on the package; for those from Castelluccio: 20 to 30 minutes.

After cooking the lentils should not be drained so it is important to measure out the amount of water.

They can be enjoyed with just a dash of olive oil or: put already crumbled sausage in a pan, some clove of peeled garlic, warm up then add the lentils already boiled as described above. Cook for 10 minutes, serve in bowl with lentils over a slice of toasted bread and a drizzle of olive oil. On New Year’s day lentils are served with pig’s feet for good luck. Enjoy your meal!”

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Spicy lentil and red kuri squash soup

17 November 2012

This is the soup you want to come home to if you’ve spent the afternoon outside and let dusk fall around you, the chill creeping until your cheeks are flushed and your fingertips frozen. If by any chance you’ve already cut the squash and prepared the cubes (undoubtedly the lengthier proposition in this recipe), the rest can be assembled fairly quickly.

The warmly spiced lentils and faintly sweet squash spring to life with a jolt of lemon, but what really makes the soup sing is the gremolata of parsley, lemon rind, and chili flakes. It is inspired by another incredible lentil soup I had at ABC Kitchen a couple of years ago. I kept note.

***

The soup

1 red kuri squash

1 cup French or Italian green lentils

3 small yellow onions

3 garlic cloves

A 2 x 1-inch piece of fresh ginger

Olive oil

Sea salt

Juice from 1 lemon

Peel and cut the squash into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Check lentils for small stones and wash in cold water. Peel and thinly slice the onions lengthwise (into half moons). Peel and finely chop the garlic and ginger.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until they become golden, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and a good pinch of salt, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often.

Now add the squash and cook for another few minutes, stirring often all the way to the bottom of the pan to mix everything well. Season with more salt.

Pour in the lentils, cover generously (by at least 1 inch or 2.5 cm) with water, and cook at a gentle simmer until the both the squash and lentils are just soft, approximately 25 minutes.

Pour in the lemon juice, starting with 1/2 lemon, testing for acidity, and add salt if needed.

Serve with a large spoonful of gremolata.

The gremolata

Handful parsley

Zest from 1 lemon

1/2 tsp Chili flakes

Excellent olive oil

Finely chop the parsley. Mix with the lemon zest, chili flakes, and just enough olive oil to coat.

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Children’s dinner | Cowboy food

6 July 2011

I take no credit for this meal, which is Thomas’s creation. He makes lentils with a fried egg and calls it “cowboy food,” because apparently cowboys ate beans and eggs; so naturally, lentils and eggs… In any case it’s a great meal, a brilliant name, and I have fallen for it, too.

I have decided to write about the easy, quick, weeknight dinners I prepare for my children, and it seemed fitting to start with “cowboy food,” which is an uncontested favorite. The other day as Balthasar asked what I was preparing and I replied “something with egg” (I hadn’t yet made up my mind), completely unprompted – and somewhat surprisingly as we haven’t had lentils for a while – he cheerfully exclaimed “cowboy food!”

I had mentioned cowboy food before in connection with a two-step lentil recipe. This is the quick version of lentils – the whole meal takes only about 35 minutes to prepare, and most of that is the lentils simmering away by themselves.

***

Two cups make a lot of lentils, but it’s always great to have lentil leftovers. They can easily be reheated, or made into a salad.

2 cups green lentils (preferably Castelluccio or du Puy)

1 small onion

Some vegetables: for example 1/2 bulb fennel, one or two stalks celery, a carrot

A few sprigs of flat-leaved parsley

2 bay leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Very good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice to serve

1 egg per person

***

The lentils

Pick through the lentils to look for small stone intruders that must be discarded. To wash the lentils, cover with cold water and drain in a fine mesh sieve.

Peel and cut into large chunks the onion and the vegetables.

Place lentils into a large saucepan with 4 cups (double the volume) water. Add the vegetable chunks, the parsley, and the bay leaves, bring to a boil and let simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes. Remove from heat when the lentils are done to your liking – I like them al dente, with a bit of bite.

Discard the sprigs of parsley, bay leaves, and vegetable chunks. Season the lentils with salt, pepper, good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and adjust.

The eggs

**It’s better to cook the eggs once the lentils are ready, because while the lentils are just as delicious warm, the egg should be eaten straight off the pan.**

Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan. Once hot, crack the eggs into the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Fry until the white is set but the yellow still runny. Serve over the lentils.

*

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Lentil and fennel salad with lemon and parsley

28 April 2011

I made this salad for Easter lunch on Sunday. I imagined it as I went. Or so I thought.

Many people liked it a lot, and one friend in particular complimented me on the originality of the pairing. I graciously accepted the comment, but all the while something in the back of my mind was nagging. Surely I had not really come up with the idea. I must have seen it somewhere. Speaking to my mother on the phone the next day I asked her about this salad. Had she not previously made something similar that might have half-consciously inspired me?

My mother is an incredible cook, and a nutritionist. Not a steamed-carrots-and-brown-rice kind of nutritionist. She loves good food, really good food. Meat, fish, vegetables, salads, desserts, and – yes – butter. She has written a few books about nutrition, one of which is a book of recipes. Sure enough, one of those recipes is a lentil salad with fennel, parsley, and coriander.

This lentil and fennel salad is different, but the inspiration – as it turns out and like so many other things in my life without my realizing it at first – is my mother’s.

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1 cup green lentils (preferably Castelluccio or du Puy)

1 small red onion

2 bulbs fennel

A generous handful flat-leaved parsley

1 bay leaf

3 Tbsps good olive oil

2 Tbsps balsamic vinegar

Juice and zest from 1 lemon (more lemon juice may be required depending on how juicy it is)

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

*

The lentils are cooked the same way as for this basic lentils recipe

Pick through the lentils to look for small stone intruders that must be discarded.

To wash lentils, cover with cold water and drain in a fine mesh sieve.

Peel and cut into large chunks the onion and half a fennel, reserving the rest of the fennel for later.

Place lentils into a medium-sized saucepan with 2 cups (double the volume) water. Add vegetable chunks, a few sprigs of parsley, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and let simmer, covered, for about 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat when the lentils are cooked to your liking – I like them to retain a nice bite. Discard sprigs of parsley and vegetable chunks, pour lentils into a large bowl, and place in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

*

Wash and finely chop the rest of the parsley.

Cut the fennel in half. Place it face side down onto the cutting board, and cut into thin strips, height-wise.

Season the lentils with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and zest, salt, and pepper. **The measurements given above are suggestions. I find that lentils hold up to a bold amount of acidity. It is best to season gradually, and adjust according to taste.**

Toss the lentils with the fennel and parsley. Check one last time for seasoning, adjust if necessary, and serve.

*

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4 March 2011

In our house lentils are known as “cowboy food.” I still haven’t understood exactly why, but Thomas peddles his lentils-with-a-fried-egg dinner as such. And it works very well. The children might even call it their favorite dinner – it’s all about marketing, really.

Or it’s inherited, because we all love lentils, and I make them often as a side, especially in winter. Lentils were great with slow-roasted pork shoulder and sautéed baby bok choy, but they are also delicious with grilled salmon and braised fennel. Or with a fried egg. Seriously. Surely you can already hear the crackling embers of the campfire, the gurgle of whiskey poured into tin cups, horses neighing nearby…

I like this technique for cooking lentils, which breaks up the process into two basic steps: First cook the lentils in lots of water with aromatics and vegetables cut into large chunks until barely al dente. Remove from heat and discard the pieces of vegetables and herbs. Then brown more of the same vegetables, finely diced, return the lentils to the pan with the vegetable mirepoix (the finely diced vegetables browned in olive oil), and reheat until the lentils are cooked to desired consistency.

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This recipe uses red onions and fennel, but yellow onions work just as well, and carrots and/or celery replace the fennel perfectly. I change it according to my mood, the rest of the meal, or what happens to be in the house.

2 cups green lentils (preferably Castelluccio or du Puy)

2 medium red onions

2 bulbs fennel

A good handful of sprigs of flat-leaved parsley

2 bay leaves

[Pancetta, optional]

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Very good olive oil

Balsamic and red wine vinegar

***

Pick through the lentils to look for small stone intruders that must be discarded. To wash lentils, cover with cold water and drain in a fine mesh sieve.

Peel and cut into large chunks half an onion and half a fennel, reserving the rest for later.

Place lentils into a large saucepan with 4 cups (double the volume) water. Add the vegetable chunks, a few sprigs of parsley, and the bay leaves, bring to a boil and let simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat when the lentils are just starting to soften but still retain a nice bite (they will cook a bit more later). Discard the sprigs of parsley, bay leaves, and vegetable chunks, pour the lentils into a large bowl, and set aside. Quickly rinse and dry the saucepan for reuse.

Finely dice the rest of the vegetables, and wash and finely chop the rest of the parsley.

[If using, cook the pancetta until crispy, remove from pan, and cut into small strips]

Heat enough olive oil to cover the base of the saucepan. Add the onion and cook until nicely brown, stirring occasionally. Add the fennel and sweat for a few minutes until it becomes translucent. Add the lentils with some of the excess liquid. **The lentils should remain moist and shiny but not swimming in liquid. If necessary add of dash of plain water to prevent the lentils from drying out.** Season generously with salt and pepper and heat gently. The lentils will continue to cook, so test and remove from the stove when they have reached the desired consistency (I personally like lentils to retain some bite).

Check the salt and pepper seasoning, adjust, add 2 tablespoons of the best olive oil and 1 tablespoon each of balsamic and red wine vinegars [and the pancetta], stir in the chopped parsley, and serve warm.


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