Sometimes the dark days of winter spook me. Unpredicatable weather and power outages. Cash flow challenges. A lack of sunlight and fresh local produce means I depend more on the grocery store, and personally, I just feel more vulnerable. I lost both of my parents in the winter and my ram, hungry and cranky on a cold snowy day, broke my leg in the winter. With the long daylight hours of summer I feel strong and alive, practically invincible. But in the winter I am not so bold and I retreat to the indoors, sleeping more and going out only for the bare necessities. Those around me have heard me refer to this as the time to stay home and eat lentils. Not only is it a comforting and affordable food to eat in winter, it just seems a lot less dangerous.
Lentils have long been known as a staple protein for vegetarians, and beacuase of that, perhaps they suffer a hippy stigma. But from India to Italy, the humble lentil offers a versitile source of daily protien which adapts well to a multitude of spices and cooking methods. Unlike other pulses, it’s small size means it can be cooked quickly.
Canada is actually the largest producer of lentils, with 28% of the world’s production grown on the Canadian praries in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. But some of the finest lentils come from regions such as Puy in France, or the Sicilian island of Ustica.
In Italy, traditionally, lentils are the first thing you eat for the New Year, as their small size and shape symbolize money and prosperity. On New Year’s eve they are often served with slices of smimmered fatty pork sausage such as Cotechino or Zampone, a stuffed pork trotter.
On a recent trip to Sicliy I tried the lentils from the Island of Ustica, which are one of 32 of Sicily’s Slow Food Presidia items. The Ustica lentils are the smallest I’ve seen, and cook quickly without pre-soaking.The classic preperation is a soup of pasta e lenticchie, with broken spagetti cooked on the side and added to the soup before serving. Here is a recipe inspired by a humble bowl of soup made with Ustica lentils which I was offered during the staff meal at La Lucerna restaurant in Porto Palo, near Menfi, in Sicily. Served with a generous swirl of freshly pressed, spicy Sicilian olive oil on top, it was the best lentil soup I have ever eaten.
Pasta e Lenticchie
Rinse 2 cups of dried lentils several times. If you are using large lentils, let them soak for an hour or so. Chop a “sofritto”, a fine dice consiting of 1 Cup of onion, 1/2 a Cup of celery and 1/2 a Cup of carrot. Finely mince a large clove of garlic. In a soup pot, saute the sofritto and garlic in 2 Tbsp of olive oil, adding a pinch of salt, a little freshly milled black pepper and a bayleaf. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the lentils and 6 cups of water. Cook for between 45 minutes and 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the lentils, tasting them for doneness from time to time. Bring a seperate pot full of water to a boil.
Fill a one cup measure with spagetti broken into 3/4 inch pieces. (This is a good job for a kid) Salt the water and cook as per the package instructions. Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed, stir in the cooked spagetti and serve drizzled with the best quality olive oil you have in the house.