“What’s for dinner?” asks my wife, as she’s wont to do. “Lentils,” I reply. Though she attempts to hide it, I can see in her eyes she’s crestfallen. “With sausage,” I add hastily.
Later, though, at the table, she’s eating heartily. I cautiously request a verdict. “Much better than I expected,” she mumbles through a bite. “In fact,” she continues, gaining enthusiasm, “these are the best lentils I’ve ever had.”
No, these are not those washed-out, listless legumes one finds at every supermarket. I am instead serving the prized tiny pulses of southern Umbria, specifically from the village of Castelluccio.
Ranging from tan to a slightly darker pale brown (once cooked), these particular lentils are noticeably smaller than most varieties, yet are more remarkable for their ability to retain shape throughout cooking, resulting in a bean that’s firm on the outside but creamy within, this ratio accentuated by the minute size.
Even better, they require little-to-no pre-soak and take just about 20 minutes to cook properly. Their nutty, rich flavor doesn’t need much accentuation, though a little sausage never hurts.
Yes, these lentils cost a fair amount more than the supermarket brands. Grown in limited quantities in Umbria – most notably Castelluccio but also Colfiorito and Monteleone di Spoleto – they often rotate in the plains with wheat and pasture, and are cultivated by hand. So while the $6.75 I paid for 17.6oz, plus shipping, might initially seem outrageous compared to the two bucks needed for the same amount of Goya, it’s quite reasonable all things considered.
Just Add Sausage
To get my authenticity on, I turn to the cookbook Umbrian Home Cooking by Wendy Aulsebrook, chef and food educator at Antonelli San Marco winery in the Montefalco area. An Australian expat who’s lived in the region for years, Aulsebrook has collected a plethora of everyday recipes from local home cooks, highlighting the simplicity of Italian cooking.
“The small light brown lentils grown in Umbria have a superior flavour and texture to many others,” Aulsebrook writes. “They have remarkable nutritional qualities: rich in protein, vitamins, fibre and minerals making them perfect for those who need a nutritious diet rich in iron, potassium and phosphorus and low in fat.”
She also happens to cook them with sausage, which makes the pairing easy. A hearty red, of course, preferably from nearby regions Montefalco (Umbria), Piceno (Marche) or Teramo (Abruzzo).
Lenticchie con Salsicce
ingredients for 4
Small brown lentils 1% cups (320 g)
Celery 1 stalk, finely chopped
Fresh sage 2 sprigs
Garlic 3 cloves, peeled
Water 1.125 litres
Extra-virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon (20 ml)
Chilli flakes pinch
Italian pork sausages 4 (200 g)
Tomato purée 2 tablespoons
Scatter a spoonful of lentils at a time onto a flat plate; pick through them discarding any broken ones and any small stones. Place lentils into a bowl and cover with cold water, allow to soak for 5 minutes. Sieve and rinse with cold water. Drain.
Transfer lentils into a saucepan, add 1 sprig of sage, half of the chopped celery, two of the whole garlic cloves and 1.125 litres (or 38 fl oz) of cold water, Bring to a boil, covered.
Reduce heat to a minimum and simmer lentils until cooked and have absorbed most of the water – this could be 20-40 minutes depending on the size of the lentils. Read the cooking instructions on the packet. Stir occasionally.
Add salt during the last 10 minutes of the cooking time.
Drain lentils into a sieve and transfer the cooking water into a separate saucepan. Keep this water hot over a low heat. Discard sage, celery and garlic.
Prepare sausage sauce: heat oil in a frypan, add remaining garlic clove and chilli flakes; sauté over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes or until garlic is golden. Remove garlic.
Remove the sausage mince from its skins and add to pan along with the remaining chopped celery and sage; Sauté until sausage is browned well, about 10-12 minutes. Stir regularly.
Add tomato purée and Cook for a further 1-2 minutes.
Add drained lentils, stir and simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Add some of the hot cooking water when necessary to maintain a thick soupy consistency.
Serve: preferably lukewarm. Toast slices of Casalinga rustic-style bread, sprinkle with salt and olive oil; serve the lentils on top. This really makes a complete meal!
Thanks to Wendy Aulsebrook for the recipe. For those interested in a copy of her cookbook, you can email her via Wendy at antonellisanmarco.it. And be sure to stop bythe winery and kitchen when in Umbria.