14 May 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Lovely Lentils of Ventotene

CHIAVARI, Italy – Ventotene is a tiny volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, 25 nautical miles off the coast of Gaeta, right at the border between Lazio and Campania. The island is less than 2 miles long (3 kilometers) and less than half a mile wide (800 meters). Today 708 people call Ventotene home, but back in the days of the Roman Empire, only a handful of people lived there. Ventotene was not a place you wanted to be, in fact you could say it was an ancient Alcatraz.

  Roman Port of Ventotene
The island was called Pandataria back then, and it was a strategic maritime hub that anchored the Roman trading empire. The Emperor Augustus radically transformed this remote barren island into his personal seaside resort and a thriving port community. Engineers of today marvel at what the Emperor constructed 2000 years ago, including a system of underground aqueducts that harvested rainwater and an impressive man-made harbor, hand-carved from the seawalls. 

Augustus may have turned the island into a thriving resort, but it soon became infamous as the island where he banished his daughter Julia in 2 BC. It seems Julia was the Paris Hilton of her day, and her father did not approve of her wild and wooly ways. He decided that she needed a time out, a five year time out, and so she was sent to Ventotene to rethink her behavior.
Quiet Island Life 
Apparently banishing unruly female relatives was the thing to do back in those days because the Emperor Tiberius also banished his grandniece Agrippina the Elder to Ventotene, and Agrippina’s youngest daughter, Julia Livilla, was also exiled there – twice. Then there was Claudia Octavia, the first wife of the Emperor Nero. She was banished to Ventotene in 62 AD and even Saint Flavia Domitilla, the granddaughter of the Emperor Vespasian, was banished to the island. She is the same Saint Flavia Domitilla the catacombs in Rome are named after.

So it is easy to see why, in the past, people were not exactly rushing to go to Ventotene, especially women.

But that’s all changed. Today, Ventotene is once again a resort island made newly famous as the place where five ancient Roman ships were discovered. The ships are between 1,600 and 1,900 years old, and were laden with - among other things - wine, olive oil and a fermented fish sauce called garum, which is much like the fish sauce used today in Asian cooking. 

It was not easy to grow food or develop a cuisine on an island made of volcanic rock, but with a little help, one plant seemed to thrive, red lentils. And from the red lentils, the Ventotenese made zuppa – soup. This is a perfect summer dish as it is served, like so many Italian soups, at room temperature.

Ventotene's  Lentil Soup 

Serves 4

250 grams of lentils (any color will do)
350 grams of tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf (or a few basil leaves)
Extra virgin olive oil

The original recipe calls for dipping the tomatoes in boiling water for a half a minute and peeling them, cutting them into quarters, removing the seeds and dicing them.  The truth is you can use any good quality canned tomatoes and save yourself a lot of time and still get good results. 

Carefully check the lentils to eliminate any tiny stones or foreign debris, and then wash them very carefully with water.

Put the lentils, the garlic clove and the chopped tomatoes in a casserole dish with about 2 liters of water. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and let it cook for about 25 minutes (or until the lentils are tender, but not mushy). Add a little more boiling water if needed. 

When the lentils are cooked, add salt and serve the soup in a shallow bowl with an added drizzle of olive oil. Serve at room temperature. If you want, you can also add cooked rice to this soup.

If dry lentils are not available here’s a quick and easy recipe from Chef David Rocco that uses canned lentils.

Quick Tomato and Lentil Soup
Lentil and Tomato Soup

1/4 cup/ 50 ml extra-virgin olive oil  
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
1 (15-ounce/441 ml) can peeled plum tomatoes   
2 fresh chili peppers, chopped
1 (19-ounce/540 ml) can lentils, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Water, optional

In a saucepan,  heat olive oil. Add garlic, parsley and chili peppers and sauté for a few minutes. Add plum tomatoes and juices from the tin. With the back of a wooden spoon, break up the tomatoes into little chunks.

Add the lentils, salt, and pepper. Add the water and allow to cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, until the soup has thickened.

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