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.
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.
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.
Pasta e Lenticchie
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (add a little bacon grease, if you have some)
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 cup chopped plum tomatoes with their juices
2 cups dried lentils (I used French green lentils.)
6-8 cups chicken broth, water or a combination of the two, depending on how thick you want it (You can also use vegetable broth to make it a vegetarian dish.)
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound small pasta or spaghetti cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmigiano for sprinkling
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until the onion is soft and slightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook a minute or two, until fragrant.
Stir in the lentils and sauté for one minute. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 30-40 minutes.
Add the pasta and simmer for 10-15 minutes more, until pasta is cooked through. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the soup among six serving bowls and drizzle each with a little of the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with grated cheese and serve.