Lentils Dans la Merde: The Story


Okay, so maybe it’s not the most appetizing name for this most excellent foodhack. But a more appropriate name—Lenticchie a la Scorciatoia (Italian for “shortcut”)—is too cumbersome. Besides, the American Idol judges would be proud—I Made It My Own. The lentils underwent an evolution, which warrants its own little story. Then I’ll post the recipe, bitch!!!!1!

People seem to have either love or suspicion for lentils. I find that more well-rounded ethnic eaters and foodies like them, because they have encountered them in a lot of different places and cuisines. Others have suspicion for the little guys. I think that lentils are like books—if you think you hate them, you just haven’t been given the right one yet. Most Italian-Americans also know the lentils well, having grown up eating them in a very thick soup.

My Nana would make huge batches of lentils and freeze the soup in one and two serving-sized containers and the ubiquitous green and white striped Newport Creamery half gallon containers, saved in great quantity after the ice cream was eaten. She would label them on little scraps of paper (mostly the backs of torn pieces of Citizens Bank deposit slips), tucking the edge of the paper into the container lid. Her fridge and freezer always, always contained what seemed like a hundred of these containers, labeled “Soup,” “Gravy,” (that’s non-marinara red sauce for our non-RI Italian readers), “Lentiles” [sic– rhymes with Gentiles]. So that at any time, anyone who was hungry had something homemade on hand, and she always had something to offer to unexpected drop-ins or friends who would be brought along.

Usually, about a third of these containers would not even have originated in Nana’s kitchen. Nana had seven sisters, and until the last ten years or so, they were all still alive and cooking. Some portion of anything Nana made would end up in someone else’s freezer for their families, and vice versa. So along with Nana’s scrawled, bank-deposit labels were Auntie’s containers—slightly neater script, paper cut, not torn, and taped on the container lids. Other Aunties’ containers each looked a little bit different. Some Aunties didn’t label their Meals on Wheels and you’d have to peek inside (or ask Nana, which you’d do at your own risk, because you’d never get an answer without first getting a string of superlatives about how much you were going to love this…this….all as she was taking it out and starting to get it ready for you, because of course you were going to want the whole thing). If you knew the contents, you mostly knew where it came from, because various relatives were known for various specialties. If it said “Soup” and was in Auntie’s handwriting, that was the Holy Grail (but that’s another whole post). If it was Vinegar Peppers in the fridge, that was from Aunt Connie. Eggplant was mostly from Auntie Jean. The Ground Veal Mixture that never had a name (I ended up calling it Slop, and Nana always knew what I meant) but which was just heaven to eat came from Auntie Evelyn. Wine biscuits on the countertop came from Auntie’s friend, Carrie. Stuffed peppers most likely came from cousin Evelyn (Auntie Evelyn’s daughter). And so on.  All were amazing.

In spite of the clear link between Relative and Specialty, I could never decide whose lentils I liked most. I think that in the end, with all due respect to Auntie, I realize that Nana’s lentils were probably tweaked and adjusted for my very picky childhood eating habits, and were, like so many other childhood favorites, custom-created for me. No tomato, no floating “things,” no weird pieces of herb.

Nana’s lentils were very thick—not a soup at all, but a hearty stew that was an entire meal. Always served with a drizzle of olive oil on top and Italian bread on the side. God forbid you would forget or skip the olive oil, Nana would follow you across the kitchen to add it. She peeled and cooked a whole potato in the simmering lentils. Once they were mostly cooked, she would remove the potato, mash most of it and add it back into the lentil mixture. Aside from the chicken stock, they were meatless, and therefore Catholic-kosher for Fridays during Lent.

Alas, Nana never was a writer down of recipes. I asked, and she tried a few times, but she just never knew from quantities other than “a little olive oil, a little garlic.” I don’t even think she owned measuring cups—I certainly never saw them in her kitchen. So I was never able to duplicate exactly what Nana did, and so my lentils never really came out quite the same as hers.

Although she wasn’t much of a measurer either, Auntie was able to write down a legible and clear recipe for me (which I still have and treasure), and hers was the one I used for years. She used a bit of crushed tomato and some wine, and not as much mashed potato. The Mr. loved this recipe (well, the product, anyway. I don’t think I’d ever describe him as loving a recipe) and always looked forward to me making it.

Until he tasted Niki’s lentils. It was circa 2005, and the Mr. was having his wisdom teeth ripped from his skull removed. I planned a big Soup-a-Palooza in advance. Five homemade soups in three days, all in double batches for freezing. Dude would have delicious soft foods for weeks. He would marvel at my cooking and organizational abilities. I was outside the kids’ then-school one afternoon at pickup time, discussing this plan with several other mothers. We often did this—swapped food ideas and recipes.  I’ve gotten and given some of my very best recipes this way. The Montessori was a hotbed of great cooking and recipe sharing, and Italian-born Niki’s were always the best. When I mentioned the lentils, Niki wanted to know how I made them, and I told her. She told me how she made hers, and it sounded so good.  I said, “You had me at pancetta.  Can I have your recipe?”  The next day, I found the recipe in my classroom pouch.

I made Niki’s lentils. Forgive me, Auntie, I know you’ve looked down on me from Heaven and given me that half-shrug with a half-frown, the same expression that you’d get when I’d start dissing the Yankees in your presence, the look that says, Eh, fanabla, I’m not going to argue with you, you know who will be there in October. But the Mr. tried the lentils and declared them the best lentils he had ever had, ever, and would I make them this way from now on, holy God they were good. He did marvel and worship, all of my soups except the squash. Niki was pleased to hear this, and I started making them her way from then on.

Then Stretch, a longtime lentil-lover of the Nana, Auntie AND Niki varieties, announced that she was now a Vegetarian. She would no longer eat the flesh of animals or fish or whatnot, and I was not to serve her meat anymore. I thought this would be a short-lived novelty, but here we are a year later. I had to make them without the pancetta, without even the chicken stock, because unlike Nana, Stretch does consider chicken stock a meat product. I tried doing Stretch’s batch separately for a while, because the Mr. really does like them Niki’s way. But I quickly had enough of that, and I’ve arrived at a hybrid of these three great recipes, with less expense, less labor and no objectionable ingredients.

It is a big hit with the Mr. and Stretch (notice how I’m leaving LittleMan out of this story entirely?). We’ve added a liberal sprinkle of croutons (Whole Foods if you have them, or homemade if not—it’s cheaper anyway) and we never forget the drizzle of olive oil.


One thought on “Lentils Dans la Merde: The Story

  1. I was just reading all about the lentils and knew whom you were speaking about right away. You are right, Auntie Livina’s soup was not to be challenged; it was the best. I have been in search of a recipe for the “great Italian meatball” for years; no one saved or got the recipe from Mrs. B. for hers and what a shame. Do you have one?

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