Saturday, May 06, 2006

Lentils and Macaroni

Last night we wanted comfort food, and I wanted to cook something that would go well with the last of the arugula and the yummy cuban bread I made in the bread machine earlier in the week. Here's a little background of this dish: My Italian grandparents came from the the Campagna, not far from Naples, and this is a southern Italian dish for sure. During the Depression, my grandfather wasn't working, and my grandmother had many mouths to feed, so they ate a lot of lentils, which they received from the government, along with dried fruit, cheese and flour. My mother was the youngest, and her memories of that time center a lot on food - what they ate, what they didn't eat, what they had, what they didn't have, what Marie Cadigan (whose husband was working) next door ate, and what she shared with her very best friend, my grandmother. While I was growing up, especially in my late teens, after my grandmother died, my mother would make this dish when she was missing my grandmother a lot.

Fast forward to last Thanksgiving. Roseanne's oldest, Joe, brought his vegetarian soon-to-be-fiancee home and Ro, being the hospitable mother that she is, wanted to cook vegetarian food for her. She couldn't think of anything other than pasta and beans (paste e fagioli) or lentils and macaroni (lenticche e macaroni). The night that she made it, as I sat at her dining room table eating it, I was overcome with nostalgia. How many times have I sat in that house eating that same dish? I took my dish upstairs and polished it off in my grandmother's (now Ethel's screaming yellow) kitchen, and thought a lot about times past and people long gone and those gone just a short while, like my mother. I thought a lot about my memories of eating that very dish in that very spot, and about the women who have made it - Grammie, Auntie Anna, Ethel, Ro, my mother. It was bittersweet. I've come to the conclusion that familial memories revolve around the kitchen table; that culture and love can be passed from generation to generation through the food we lovingly prepare and eat. Its a sacrament, really.

And it was delicious - Ro is a fantastic cook - always has been. But I haven't had the heart to make lentils and macaroni since then until last night. But I did make it a little differently than I usually do because I just can't stop experimenting. Dear daughter is VERY happy with me today! We've got lots of leftovers in the fridge and freezer as well. In fact, I think I'll have a bowl for breakfast!

Lentils and Macaroni

1 large onion, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 carrot, minced
extra virgin olive oil
3 - 4 cloves garlic
1 C brown lentils
8 C water
2 Tbs chicken bouillion powder
1 small bay leaf
1 tsp Italian herbs
2 pinches red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 C soup pasta like ditalini, small shells or elbows

Saute the veggies and garlic in olive oil in a big pot. Add the herbs and pepper and saute a minute more. Add the lentils, then the bouillion powder, then the water, stirring after each addition. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Taste for salt and spices. Add the soup macaroni and cook in the broth, adding water if necessary to maintain your preferred thickness, and adding another spoon of bouillion powder if more flavor is needed.

Notes: There is no salt in this dish, because the bouillion provides the salt. Grammie used to make this using chicken broth that she made herself, or in a pinch, Swansons (and only Swansons - its the best!), but she still would add a few cubes of chicken bouillion to the pot for extra flavor. I made this a few times with chicken broth that I made in the pressure cooker, which was fantastic - the most chicken-y broth I ever ate. I'm thinking that the next time I want to make chicken salad or something, I should use the chicken to make broth in the pressure cooker, and then make this dish.... hm.... its a good idea and maybe I'll do that. I used elbows because that's what I had in the house.

If you look carefully at the photo, you will note rice in the bowl. That was a noble experiment that I won't do again. Instead of 2 C of pasta, I used 1 C rice and 1 C pasta, which was tasty but made it far too dry. So, I added more water, about 2 more C, and it was delicious. But I won't do that again unless I'm making kusherie, which is another post entirely.

Serve this sprinkled with some parmesan on top, a green salad (the last of the arugula, deep, deep sigh), some crusty bread, a glass of wine and some fruit for dessert.

Vegan: Its very, very easy to veganize this - just use vegetable broth or vegetable broth powder, and skip the parmesan on top. I seldom use the parmesan anyway.

Total time from bag of lentils to the bowl: about an hour

Four stars with the rice, Five stars as I usually make it

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