La Tavola della mia Famiglia: Pasta e Lenticchie for a Prosperous New Year

Sunday, January 2, 2011

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When I was a little girl, my grandfather worked as a longshoreman for the New York Port Authority.   For most of his career, he worked the night shift.  This meant that from Monday through Friday, he was rarely ever around at dinner time.  As a result, my Nonna  usually kept weeknight meals simple, since it was only her – and sometimes me – dining in.  Nonna was a big fan of bean dishes and she made them often. They were easy, nutritious and cheap.  And my Nonna was nothing if not frugal, as most World War 2 wives were.  Cucina povera was her specialty.

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I’ve already shared Nonna’s recipe for Pasta e Fagioli, or “Pasta Fazool”, as we affectionately call it.  But another pasta and beans dish that we ate a lot of back then, was Pasta e Lenticchie, or pasta with lentils.  Although a lot of recipes portray both dishes as soups, neither dish is intended to be one, but rather a thick, wet, sloppy stew, with just enough liquid in them to sop up with a hunk of crusty Italian bread. 

Lentils are members of the legume family and come in many different varieties, from black and yellow to red and green.  They have a mild, earthy and sometimes nutty flavor, depending on what kind you use.   Like other legumes, lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber.  Because of their small size, they also cook quite a bit quicker than other types of beans, and they don’t need to be soaked first.   For some tips on cooking lentils, take a look at this article from About.com.

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In Italian culture, the lentil’s biggest claim to fame is that it is one of the traditional “must eat” foods on New Year’s Eve. Eating lentils on New Year’s Eve is believed to bring good luck and prosperity throughout the following year.  Their small, round shape resembles coins that swell when cooked, so they are looked upon as a symbol of wealth. Italians are absolutely militant about this.  In fact, my grandmother wouldn’t even think of serving a meal on December 31 that didn’t include lentils in some form.

Pasta e Lenticchie, like Pasta e Fagioli, is a simple, rustic dish prepared with just a handful of basic ingredients.  Garlic and onions are sautéed in olive oil to which lentils, tomatoes, water and pasta are added and simmered to tenderness.  There isn’t much more to it than that.  I use chicken broth instead of water as my simmering liquid for extra flavor, but I’m pretty sure that my grandmother made do with plain, old H2O from the tap.

Dishes like this Pasta e Lenticchie are pure comfort food for me.  Cooking, and of course, eating them always transports me back to being six years-old in my grandmother’s homey, little kitchen.  Those were golden times for me.

My Nonna passed away over thirty years ago – just a few years after we moved to Florida.  I was fourteen and the memory of it still stings.  She was much too young and went much too soon.  I hardly had a chance to really get to know her beyond her infectious laugh, twinkling brown eyes and the heady scent of Cashmere Bouquet and Noxema that trailed her as she entered a room.  And it’s such a shame, because I have a feeling that as the years went on, we would have had a whole lot more in common than just DNA.

What are your favorite comfort foods?  Is there any one dish above all others that makes you think of “home”?  Does your family have any New Year’s Eve food traditions?  “Enquiring minds” want to know.

Buon Appetito!

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25 responses to La Tavola della mia Famiglia: Pasta e Lenticchie for a Prosperous New Year

  1. On January 02, 2011 at 12:47pm, Rosa said...

    That is a great dish! I really like the idea of combining legumes with pasta.

    Happy New Year!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:27pm, Susan said...

      Thank you, Rosa! Happy New Year to you too! :)

  2. On January 02, 2011 at 12:52pm, Joanne said...

    My parents always always always eat pasta with clam sauce on New Year’s so I’m going to have to tell them about this lentil business. They’re too Italian not to be informed! This sounds delicious. I really love these Italian soup/stew dishes.

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:29pm, Susan said...

      Clam sauce? That’s a new one to me. We usually eat that on Christmas Eve. On New Year’s Eve, it’s always beans. Must be a regional thing.

  3. On January 02, 2011 at 1:26pm, bellini said...

    To me this is the perfect way to start the new year Susan with food that is flooded with good memories and comfort. Happy New Year!!

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:29pm, Susan said...

      So true, Val. Happy New Year to you too! :)

  4. On January 02, 2011 at 3:25pm, Jessica said...

    Oh, how I loved this post – made me remember pasta e fagioli and lenticchie from growing up. Now I am feeling major guilt for not serving lentils on New Year’s Eve. I too lost my grandmother (a fantastic cook and baker) much too early, and I miss her still – interestingly, she was not Italian, but married an Italian, so had to learn to cook for him like his mamma did, of course!

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:30pm, Susan said...

      Aww, thanks! Glad I stirred up some good memories for you.

  5. On January 02, 2011 at 3:26pm, Nancy said...

    This sounds fabulous, I was going to make soup tonite, but I may make this instead. Pasta e Fagioli is one of my all time favorite comfort foods. It does not get much better than pasta, beans and good bread! Thanks so much for sharing. Happy New Year!

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:31pm, Susan said...

      Glad you like it! Let me know how it turns out. Happy New Year!

  6. On January 02, 2011 at 6:10pm, Lori said...

    This looks delicious. Lentils are always a great choice. I love your description of your Nonna. She lives on in you, preparing this food and remembering her so fondly.

    • On January 02, 2011 at 6:32pm, Susan said...

      You’re sweet! Thank you. :)

  7. On January 02, 2011 at 10:38pm, Stephanie said...

    That looks delicious. Food always tastes better when it has some sort of significance or tradition

  8. On January 02, 2011 at 10:46pm, Betty @ scrambled hen fruit said...

    Food steeped in tradition is always the best comfort food! I’m not Italian, so the legume of my VA family’s New Year tradition is the black eyed pea. (Usually seasoned with the Christmas ham hock!) Happy New Year!

  9. On January 02, 2011 at 11:49pm, Tessa said...

    I love the history you have tied to this dish. It looks and sounds great. Thanks for sharing and best wishes for a great 2011!

  10. On January 03, 2011 at 3:19pm, food librarian said...

    What a lovely post. I love when food has so much meaning and brings up so many memories. Happy New Year! – mary the foodlibrarian

  11. On January 03, 2011 at 5:10pm, Suze said...

    Awww, your Nonna and Papa are so adorable! Your beautiful Nonna with her orchid (was there every any other kind of flower used? I think not) corsage, your handsome Papa with the twinkle in his eyes!

  12. On January 04, 2011 at 9:39am, Rachel (S[d]OC) said...

    Such a sweet story about your grandmother. Thanks for sharing that along with the recipe. It’s funny that I can remember the “pasta fazool” of my childhood not being a soup, as it is so often served now. I’m glad I’m not going crazy.

    NYE traditions are funny. My family always ate ham and cabbage on New Year’s Day (my maternal grandfather was Irish). When I was attending college in PA Dutch country, my friends who were from that area said it was always pork and sauerkraut. Cabbage is dollars. Lentils are cents?

  13. On January 04, 2011 at 11:53am, The Food Hunter said...

    What a lovely way to remember your nonna. Tripe is a New Year’s Eve tradition in our family. Not sure why or how it came about but I can’t remember a New Year’s Eve without it.

  14. On January 04, 2011 at 2:33pm, Rosemary@sprigsofrosemary.com said...

    What a beautiful story you tell! I love food lore. I never heard of lentils on NYEve before, but now that I have, it will be a tradition for me, as much as I love lentils. My only tradition is on New Year’s Day and it came from my German-y husband — pork and sauerkraut is supposed to bring good luck. (Wish I liked sauerkraut as much as I like lentils!)

  15. On January 04, 2011 at 7:21pm, Joshua said...

    Thanks for this recipe. I think I’ve already had so many lentils this year I’ll be very prosperous indeed.

  16. On January 04, 2011 at 10:34pm, Ciaochowlinda said...

    Susan – You can feel the love coming through in this dish. Like you, I try to include lentils in my first meal of the year – usually a lentil soup.

  17. On January 11, 2011 at 6:16pm, Vince said...

    OMG, what a great post. I have not had this dish in years. It was a dish that my family had once a week. I made it tonight for supper and it was delicious. Brought back alot of memories. Thanks for posting this!

  18. On January 28, 2011 at 10:17pm, Karina said...

    Hi Susan!

    I love your blog and I especially love your family recipes. I recently bought some bottarga and was wondering if you had any particular recipe for it that you would care to share? Thanks!

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Hello and welcome to SGCC! I’m Susan, a professional writer, food columnist, recipe developer, wife, mother, daughter and sister, who used to be a lawyer in a previous life. My love of food comes from a long line of wonderful and creative Italian home cooks who didn’t always have a lot, but knew how to make a lot out of what they had. I hope that you enjoy yourself while you’re here, and visit often! read more >>

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