Category Archives: lentils

the zest of it

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It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

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As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

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I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

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The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

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Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

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Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

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This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

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Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

Lucky strike

Lately I’ve been walking. Pounding really, most mornings, while I still can, before my teaching and work at Teatro Verde burst the weird and wondrous bubble that is maternity leave. Pounding the streets of this stupendous city with well-caffeinated blood, sensible shoes, a small and increasingly vocal half Roman strapped to my chest and no particular destination in mind. On Friday we followed the deep curves of the Tevere river from Ponte Sublico all the way to Ponte Cavour. We had our second breakfast at Antonini before weaving our way through the ochre and terracotta hued warren of medieval lanes and tiny piazzas: Via dei Coronari, Piazza della Pace, Via del Governo Vecchio. We paused to inhale the Pantheon and talk to a cheeky dog called Pio before striding across Largo Argentina, crossing the Ghetto and then crunching leaves all the way along Lungotevere. It was a pretty glorious morning. Then I made pasta e lenticchie for Lunch.

If you’d told me eight years ago that Pasta e lenticchie would become one of my preferred things to eat, I’d have sniffed and told you to pass me the spaghettipesto-torn chardbalsamico-mozzarella-ravioli-parmigianopizzacosa immediately. For most of my first year in Rome I continued resisting and persisting! ‘Yes of course I’ve heard of pasta e lenticchie! It’s pasta mixed with lentils! Sounds a little dreary don’t you think?‘ I ignored, snubbed and slighted every suggestion of Pasta e lenticchie I encountered.

It was New Years Eve when I saw the lentil light. As the clock struck midnight I was presented with an auspicious Italian tradition, a plate of braised lentils crowned with three slices of such rudely pink, fat Cotechino sausage it almost made me blush. Words and excuses tumbled from my mouth! ‘It’s midnight! We’ve been eating and drinking and drinking and eating since six o clock! I can’t possibly eat another…..’ ‘But you must’ I was told earnestly. ‘It’s the lentils you see, like little coins, they’ll bring you luck. They’re delicious too. Mangia.’

They were indeed, properly delicious, soft, earthy little orbs. Full flavoured too – clearly cooked with a fearless quality of guanciale – and a perfect foil for the rich, glutenous Cotechino. For lunch on New Years Day the rest of the lentils were reheated with a little broth, fortified with pasta and served with a glug of raw olive oil and a blizzard of pecorino romano. Riches of the monetary kind may not have been forthcoming that particular year, but at least I’d understood.

Like the reigning king and queen of hearty minestrepasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, pasta e lenticchie is a dense, hearty, elemental soup with pasta. Most regions have a version of pasta e lenticchie and Lazio, more specifically Rome, is no exception. I’m reliably informed that the key to pasta e lenticchie Roman style is a serious battuto. Now battuto, which comes from the verb battere (to strike) describes the finely chopped rabble of ingredients produced by striking them on a chopping board with a knife. Like many Roman dishes the battuto for pasta e lenticchie is a mixture of guanciale, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley. Strike.

Having prepared your battuto you need to sauté it over a modest heat in a heavy based pan until the vegetables are extremely tender, golden and – with much of their water sautéed away – intensely flavoured. This is the soffritto. Some people like to add the battuto in stages: onion and guanciale first, carrot, celery and parsley a few minutes later and last, but by no means least, the delicate garlic. I don’t, I do however keep an eagle eye on the pan. Once the vegetables are soft and your kitchen is filled with the most tremendous heady scent, you add a couple of peeled plum tomatoes and let the contents of pan bubble a little longer. Now add the lentils – ideally the lovely browny-grey ones from Castelluccio di Norcia – nudge them round the pan so they are well coated with the fragrant fat. Next water, enough to cover the lentils by a couple of centimeters. Bring the soup to the boil and them reduce it to a trembling simmer – keeping a beady eye on the water level – for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Taste, season generously (remember you are going to add pasta) and taste again

To finish, you cook the pasta in the soup. The tiny tubes called ditalini are particularly nice. Bring the soup to a boil, making sure there are still a couple of centimeters of liquid above the lentils and tip in the pasta. Keep stirring attentively, nudging and adding more water if the soup becomes too thick or the pasta starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. Keep tasting too, lunch is ready when the pasta is tender but al dente and the soup is thick but eminently spoonable and rippling. Don’t be afraid to add a little more water, even just before serving! Just check the seasoning again.

Wait another five minutes or so for the flavours to settle. Serve your pasta e lenticchie with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a shower of freshly grated pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese. A tumbler of wine is advisable too – this is good – after all I’m not back at work until Thursday.

This is one of the most deeply satisfying bowls of food I know!  A judicious, delicious and auspicious one too. Also for someone like me, someone who lacks bean foresight and nearly always forgets to soak, lentils – which don’t require a long bath – are a precious kitchen staple.  As a guanciale devotee, I relish its presence and the deep fatty notes it bestows on this dish. That said, pasta e lenticchie is (almost) as good when made with pancetta or very fatty bacon. It is also – hello Rosie and my vegetarian friends – excellent when made without any meat at all! Just remember to add a  large parmesan crust to the pan at the same time as the water.

Eat.

Pasta e Lenticchie Pasta with lentils

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 75 g guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon
  • a medium-sized onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a medium-sized carrot
  • a stalk or two of leafy parsley
  • a stalk of celery
  • salt
  • 4 plum tomatoes (either fresh or tinned)
  • 300 g small brown/grey lentils
  • 350 g short tubular pasta
  • black pepper
  • parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil for serving

Very finely chop the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon. Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot, parsley and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then add the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon, diced vegetables and a pinch of salt. Saute the ingredients, stirring and turning them regularly, until they are very soft and golden which should take about 15 minutes.

If you are using fresh tomatoes peel them, cut them in half, scoop away most of the seeds and then chop them roughly. If you are using tinned plum tomatoes simply chop them roughly. Add the tomatoes to the pan, stir to coat them well and then cook for another few minutes.

Add the lentils to the pan, turning them two or three times to coat them well. Add enough water to cover the lentils by a couple of cm’s. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil and the reduce the heat so the lentils and vegetables simmer gently, stirring every now and then for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Make sure the level of water is always more or less  a couple of cm above the lentils, replenish with as much water as needed.

Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taste and season again if necessary. Add the pasta and raise the heat so the lentils and pasta boil gently. Keep stirring attentively as the pasta will stick to the base of the pan. Add more water if necessary. Once the pasta is cooked (tender but still with a slight bite) remove from the heat and let the pan sit for 5 minutes.

Serve with a little extra virgin olive oil poured on top and pass around a bowl of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano for those who wish.

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Filed under food, lentils, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, soup