16 November 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: Hello My Lovely - Lentils

SARONNO, Italy - It was crisp and cool in Saronno yesterday and it seemed like a good day to cook lentils. I won’t tell you the part about burning them and ruining the pot because I was in my little office on the computer, and not paying attention to what was going on in the kitchen. I did manage to save at least enough for lunch and I put them together with some rice and spinach that was left over from Sunday.  
Castelluccio di Norcia
Lentils, also known as (Lens culinaris) or simply lens, are the seeds of an herb native to southwestern Asia (modern Syria). From there it spread very quickly throughout the Mediterranean basin. The plant is characterized by branched stems and vines that can reach 50 cm high with rectangular pods that contain 2-3 seeds ranging in color from yellow-green, red, brown and black. The flavor of lentils varies and depends on the size and color. Generally the small ones,  called lenticchie mignon in Italy, are the most delicious. After they are harvested they are dried and packaged. They can also be found pre-cooked in a can.  

 Lovely Lentils
Lentils are the oldest cultivated legume, dating back to 7000 BC, and was once the staple food of the poor in Greece and Italy. In old Rome there was a very important family, the Lentuli, who – I think – got their name because of some involvement in the cultivation or distribution of lentils. By the mid-sixteenth century, Italians were calling eye disks "lentils", and for more than two hundred years eyeglasses were known as “glass lentils”. 

Here in Italy lentils are grown primarily in the hills of Umbria and Lazio. The most common varieties take their names from their place or origin. Cultivation is divided into two groups – large lentils and the small, mignon lentils. Farmers are probably planting lentil seeds as in some regions, like Castelluccio di Norcia and Colfiorito in Umbria and Leonessa in Lazio,  this is lentil planting time. 
Lentil Plant
The most common varieties are the green lentils of Altamura, which are a little bigger in size than brown lentils, and served primarily as a side dish. The lentils of Ustica grow in volcanic soil and are dark brown in color. They are small and tender and very tasty, and unfortunately difficult to find on the open market.
The lentils from Castelluccio are also small and very tasty and considered the best lentils on the Italian market. In 1997 they were awarded the prestigious Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) by the European Union, which protects and preserves their uniqueness.  Red lentils, also known as Egyptian lentils or Indian dal, are also very popular in Italy.  

Uncooked Lentils
A word to the wise: If you buy lentils in bulk, even if they are in sealed bags, check to see that they are not contaminated with parasites or larvae and that there are no holes on the surface of the lentils. It’s also a good idea to check the source and when they were harvested. If they are too old they will need a long cooking time and that detracts from their flavor.

If you buy canned lentils, make sure the can is not dented or damaged in any way as this can affect the product.

Lentils should be stored in a dry place, and preferably in a closed glass container. If properly stores, they should keep for up to a year.

Such a Pretty Picture
You can use lentils in soups or as side dishes, in salads or even as a sauce for pasta. In Italy lentils are the traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day, the idea being that the more lentils you eat the richer you will be in the New Year. Sounds good to me. I like lentils, they are rich in protein and vitamin A, B1, B2, C, and calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus and work wonders for people who suffer from anemia or exhaustion. Just don’t overdo it. 

It is recommended that you stainless steel cookware, cast iron, clay or enameled iron cookware but not aluminum, as the aluminum will turn your lentils black.

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