On New Year's Eve, a steaming pot of lentils with whole sausages and slices of traditional cotechino, large pork sausage, was always on the dinner menu at home in Perugia, Italy. In preparing this festive comfort dish, my mother followed a tradition meant to bring prosperity, as lentils have come to symbolize coins. As a child, I didn't know that the lentils we ate were special. Perugia is the capital city of Umbria, the region in central Italy renowned for the cultivation of legumes, including the lentils from Castelluccio di Norcia and Altopiano di Colfiorito, fagiolina (a type of cowpea) from Lake Trasimeno, roveja (a type of wild pea) and pale, flat cicerchia beans.
Umbrian lentils are small with concentrated flavor, don't need to be soaked in advance, cook relatively quickly and keep their shape when cooked. A mouthful brings you right to the green heart of Italy and its small towns full of history and traditions. Castelluccio di Norcia is a village high up on the Sibillini Mountains. It is not far from Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict (San Benedetto, as we know him), founder of Western monasticism and patron saint of Europe. Both Castelluccio and Colfiorito are located in the eastern part of Umbria.
Back to lentils. They are an ancient food. Archeological studies have shown the presence of lentils in the Fertile Crescent region as far back as 8500 B.C. Cultivation and consumption of lentils spread around the Mediterranean Sea to Africa and South Asia. Nowadays, Canada is the world leading producer, followed by India.
Lentils are a protein-rich, high-fiber legume and contain folate, thiamin, vitamin B6, manganese, iron, phosphorous, zinc, copper, potassium and magnesium. They are also versatile: You can make them into soup, a warm salad or a pasta sauce, or serve them with meat, eggs or fish for a richer entrée. What's not to like about them?
Besides Castelluccio and Colfiorito lentils, other varieties of small lentils to explore include black Beluga, named for their resemblance to Beluga caviar, and the larger du Puy, which are slate green with a delicate blue marbling, from the Auvergne region of France. Authentic Castelluccio lentils (it's that serious) carry the European Union's Protected Geographic Indication label, while du Puy lentils carry the Protected Designation of Origin label. Easier to find are French green lentils (the "generic" version of du Puy) and black Beluga lentils. If you visit Umbria, make sure to eat some lentils, regardless of the time of year. Trust me, you'll love them.
The recipe below is one way of cooking French green, black Beluga, Castelluccio or Colfiorito lentils. You can serve the lentils as they are, warm and dressed with some extra-virgin olive oil and just a bit of freshly ground black pepper, or you can use them to prepare other dishes. One option is to make a nest of the warm lentils and deposit a poached egg in the center. You can also heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté 2 1/2-3 ounces of sausage meat per person (like the mild Italian variety). When the meat is no longer pink, stir in the cooked lentils to warm up and serve immediately. Of course, my father would recount my grandmother asking my grandfather, "Luigi, would you like egg or sausage?"
"Egg with sausage is very good," my grandfather replied.
So, you could follow my grandfather's example and have both.
1 cup French green or other small lentils
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons peeled and finely chopped carrot
A garlic clove, unpeeled and crushed
A small bay leaf
2 cups cold water
Hot water, as needed
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt (or more to taste)
Sort through the lentils and remove any bits of debris, then rinse in cold water and drain.
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, warm up the oil. Add the finely chopped vegetables, the garlic and the bay leaf and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the lentils and sauté for another 5 minutes over gentle heat, stirring often. Remove the garlic and discard it.
Add the water. Cover the pot and quickly bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender. Check after 15 minutes and estimate the time necessary to complete the cooking. If the pan becomes dry while the lentils are cooking, add 1/4 cup of hot water, then stir. Repeat as needed to keep the pan from drying out.
When the lentils are tender, remove the pan from the heat. There should be 1-2 tablespoons of cooking liquid left in the pan to keep the lentils moist. If there is more, remove the excess (unless you plan to make lentil soup). Remove the bay leaf, adjust the salt and stir. Buon appetito!
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.