Archive for the ‘Spring soup’ 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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Soba noodle soup with meatballs and baby bok choy

25 February 2011

This is one of those magical recipes that just happened. I had made chicken broth and felt compelled to use it right away. (I have mentioned before that I like soups that don’t require the use of broth. It’s not because I don’t like making broth, it’s because when I do make it, I want to use it immediately, in a dish that will duly appreciate its full worth.)

That day I happened to have all the right ingredients in my kitchen – perfect cooking serendipity: broth, ground beef, baby bok choy, soba noodles. I wanted a soup that tasted zingy, comforting, fresh, far-eastern…ish. (Sadly, this is the closest I come to making anything remotely Asian. And that is one thing I hope to change.) Miraculously, the soup I hoped for was exactly what I got.

Because I liked this soup very much and had nothing else on hand I was once tempted to make it with store-bought broth – it just wasn’t the same.

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The chicken broth

I don’t make a science out of cooking chicken broth. Whenever I roast a chicken, I throw the bones into a saucepan, cover them generously with (filtered) water, add whatever happens to be in the fridge – chunks of carrot or celery, a wedge of onion, a sprig of parsley, or just a few peppercorns, a bay leaf, and a squeeze of lemon juice (or vinegar) if that’s all there is. It boils for a couple of hours, it’s drained, and it’s done. I usually add salt to the broth just before using it – it seems to be a better way of controlling the seasoning.

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The meatballs

1 tsp fennel seeds

2 garlic cloves

1 tsp coarse grey sea salt

1/2 onion

One handful flat-leaved parsley

1 egg

Zest from 1/2 lemon

1 lb (450 g) ground beef (or a half/half mix of beef and veal)

In a mortar, grind the fennel seeds finely and set aside, then crush the garlic together with the salt to form a paste, and combine with the ground fennel. Finely chop the onion and the parsley.

In a bowl, thoroughly mix the meat with all the other ingredients: fennel/garlic/salt mix, onion, parsley, egg, and lemon zest.

Shape the meat into small balls, no larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter (will make approximately 24).

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The soup

2 heads baby bok choy

1 small piece fresh ginger (about 1 inch – 2.5 cm)

8 cups (2 l) homemade chicken broth

About 2 dozen meatballs

200 g soba noodles

3 Tbsps garum (or other Asian fermented fish sauce)

2 Tbsps soy sauce

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To prepare the baby bok choy, remove any damaged outer leaves, cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) strips crosswise, and wash in cold water to remove any grit. Cut the ginger into matchstick-thin strips.

Bring broth to a lively simmer. Add ginger and cook for 1 minute. Add meatballs and cook for another minute.  Add soba noodles and cook for another 2 minutes. Add bok choy and cook for 1 final minute. **Adjust the heat throughout to make sure the broth continues to boil. The timing is important since all the ingredients overcook very quickly.**

Season with garum and soy sauce and serve immediately.

Happy New Year! (Lentil soup with cumin)

4 January 2011

It’s not that I haven’t been cooking – or eating – since early December, but somehow all the feasting and visits from friends and family got in the way of writing. It was a productive period nonetheless, culinarily speaking, in which I unexpectedly improved a foie gras recipe and expanded my cookie baking horizon, all of which should make for a profuse Christmas season next year, if I am better organized.

But it’s 2011, and since I just learned that lentils are a New Year’s tradition in some regions of France and Italy – the way black-eyed peas and collard greens are here in the South – and because I will grab any excuse to make this soup, here it is at last, the deliciously simple lentil soup with cumin from Moro: The Cookbook, somewhat rewritten but barely altered.

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From Moro: The Cookbook by Sam and Sam Clark

2 cups (400g) lentils (green, red, or yellow)

3 medium onions

6 garlic cloves

Olive oil

3 heap tsps cumin seeds

Sea salt

Freshly ground back pepper

Lemon, plain yogurt, and Harissa to serve (optional)

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

Finely slice onions and garlic.

Heat enough olive oil to cover the base of a large heavy-bottom saucepan, add the onions and brown over medium heat, stirring occasionally (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile roughly grind the cumin seeds in a mortar. Once the onions are nicely golden, add the garlic and cumin and stir. Then add the lentils and stir to mix with the onion/cumin mix.

Cover the lentils with 4 times their volume of cold water (8 cups or 2 l), place lid on the pan, and let simmer gently until lentils are soft, about 40 minutes, checking occasionally to add water if necessary. (There should be some excess water in the pot otherwise it will be a purée rather than a soup, but not too much because the soup should be nice and thick.)

Season with salt and pepper and blend until smooth.

Squeeze some lemon and add a spoonful of good plain tart yogurt or some Harissa if desired.

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