My years growing up in an immigrant Italian family led to some culinary experiences that I considered “different”—different from those of my neighborhood and school friends, that is.
First of all, my dear sweet mother had an extraordinary affection for escarole, a lettuce-like bitter green. Once, she was stopped in the grocery store by a curious patron to ask if “all those greens were for her.” It seemed to me that my mother put escarole in everything: salads, soups and mixed with beans and olive oil as a side dish.
Then there was arugula. It couldn’t have been too easy to find back then, but we had it fairly often, much to my dismay. I kept thinking of skunks when I ate it (really). I love it now.
We also ate a lot of lentils, the lowly bean so popular in Italy. I don’t remember anyone I knew talking about eating lentils. I never saw it on a restaurant menu. The thing is—we didn’t have lamb shanks or duck breasts on a bed of lentils or a spicy lentil salad. We just had bowls of lentils, boiled and doused in olive oil with salt and pepper. That, along with a salad, was dinner, especially during Lent. Sometimes, my mother mixed in some cooked elbow macaroni, but it wasn’t a meal that I looked forward to. Italian peasant food for sure!
Lentils are very popular now. I see them paired with chicken, duck and lamb, and they star in many vegetarian main dishes. But on a cold, winter day, what is better than a bowl of hot lentil soup?
Almost every Italian cookbook I own has a recipe for lentil soup. Some recipes call for only a few basic ingredients. Some use ham and are cooked in the manner of Navy bean soup. The recipe that follows from the magazine, Taste of Italia, is one I like very much. It has a complexity of ingredients like tomatoes, prosciutto, sage, garlic and even rice that many other versions do not. I made it on a cold weeknight in December and just paired it with garlic bread and fruit—simple but perfect!
LENTIL AND RICE SOUP (Minestra di riso e lenticchie)
- ½ pound (1 generous cup) brown or green lentils
- 2½ quarts beef broth (I use reduced sodium College Inn beef broth.)
- 1 large bay leaf
- ¼ cup fruity extra virgin olive oil, plus more oil for serving
- 3 or 4 large garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ pound prosciutto, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried
- 1 cup peeled and seeded chopped canned tomatoes, plus 1 cup of their liquid (you can substitute 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes, if you prefer)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (try the type packed in a tube for less waste)
- 2 teaspoons sea salt (or less, as you prefer)
- ½ cup white rice
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
- Pick over the lentils and rinse well.
- Place them in a large saucepan or soup pot along with the beef broth and bay leaf.
- Bring the broth and lentils to a boil over medium heat. Immediately reduce the heat to medium low and simmer gently, uncovered, until they are half-cooked (about 12 minutes).
- Meanwhile, in a cold skillet, combine the olive oil and garlic and place over medium-low heat.
- Sauté this mixture until the oil begins to heat and the garlic begins to soften slightly (about 4 minutes).
- Stir in the chopped prosciutto and sauté gently for another minute or two until the garlic is fully softened.
- Add the sage, tomatoes and their liquid and the tomato paste and simmer for 5 minutes to blend all the flavors.
- Transfer the tomato mixture to the pot with the lentils and bring to a boil.
- Add the salt (to taste) and the rice.
- Stir well and cook over medium heat, uncovered, until the rice and lentils are tender (about 15 minutes).
- Season the soup with pepper and stir in the chopped parsley.
- Ladle into warm soup bowls and drizzle extra olive oil on top, if desired.
- Serve with salad or fresh fruit and nice crusty bread.
My lentil “research” revealed that, in Umbria, the central rural area of Italy, lentils are most often paired with rice rather than macaroni (like my mother did). So, you could try that version, too.
This flavorful soup is certainly a step up from my mother’s plainly cooked lentils. But I know she would approve.
Cooking Note: It is very important not to omit the intermediate step of sautéing the tomatoes, garlic and prosciutto. This step will meld the flavors in the finished soup.
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