March 3, 2012

Blog the Seventh: Lentils or Pintos ‘n Pasta

Vegan Fare for Fridays in Lent

I was not reared to do penance.  I really cannot be faulted for it.  On one hand, my religious education took place in the milieu of liberalizing enthusiasm that followed upon the Second Vatican Council, and what I most remember of my 8 years of C.C.D. classes (Catholic Sunday school for public school kids) was the drumming into me, between stanzas of Kumbaya, of one principal doctrine, namely, that God loves me so unconditionally that he forgives any sin I commit.  Well, even taking cognizance of the pre-condition that I repent and mean it, that done, what was all the to-do about doing penance after absolution, given he was so set on being so unconditional about it, wondered I, ingenuous child that I was, untutored in the distinction between the will’s need of conversion and nature’s need of reparation.

On the other hand, it’s hard to repair habits of excess by means of abstinence when you like penitential food.  I can’t help it if I like my people’s Lenten dishes.  I get concupiscent yearnings for them even outside Lent.  We actually ate these meatless dishes on all Fridays of the year when I was growing up, and usually Wednesdays too, no doubt harkening back to a time when these were days of abstinence all year long, and not just in Lent.  It’s a testimony to the insuppressibility of my people’s culinary genius that their penitential dishes become a species of gustatory pleasure that waxes even as religious practice wanes. 

But when you’re a little Italian kid, this stuff seems like hell.  My sister once broke out into a tantrum when the smell of cooking lentils greeted us in the hallway of our house as we came home from school.  And I remember more than one evening when she held a protest at the dinner table, which standoffs with my father provided diversionary cover for my mother to spoon much of mine into her dish.  But almost all Italian kids eventually undergo the conversion.  Even my younger brother, who for the duration of his youth was unwilling to eat but six things, and got away with it because he was such a skinny-belink that my poor Italian mother was grateful to be permitted to feed him whatever it was he was willing to eat (I often say that I was the favorite when I was growing up only because I had no competition), even this begrudging eater by his 20’s began not only to eat pasta ‘n lentils but even to find comfort in it.  And so to this day.

Well, ‘tis the season, so I thought I’d do a Lenten series.  This is a great time of year to have your vegetarian friends over for dinner and kill two birds with one stone (but without eating them, of course).  In fact, if you’ve been really bad, why not go vegan?  It’s a lot more respectable a penance than eating fish on Friday, which although once the food of the poor now costs more than most fine meat.  Buy lentils, give your savings to the poor, have a vegan over for dinner, and you’ll have your abstinence and charity covered for the day; a little praying that the vegan come to his senses by Easter, and you have all three of your Lenten bases run for the day.

A glitch with having the vegan over is that he won’t eat the second dish of zucchini with eggs.  A second dish on a Friday in Lent, you ask, raising your eyebrows?  And me raising mine, did you not understand non-negotiable when I told you pasta is non-negotiably never dinner, only and ever a first dish?  Perhaps I should have said unconditional to preempt any such culinary casuistry as you now attempt (and please don’t put that supercilious face of piety on your theologically disingenuous blurring of the difference between abstinence and fasting).  Now if I may get back to our guest vegan, he’s no doubt used to being hungry all the time anyway, so he can make do with salad and bread while we eat our zucchini and eggs, and then after our salad we can rejoin ranks with him over fresh fruit; for a sweet there’ll be dried figs with roasted almonds and some chunked Parmigiano for us simple vegetarians.   You can leave sugar out of your espresso, if you feel you haven’t had your fill of self‑abnegation.

Pasta with lentils is less well known than pasta with beans, pasta e faggioli being found in even posh Italian restaurants, peasant food though it be.  In pronouncing the Italian name you often elide:  past’e faggioli.  Seems to me we do something similar in English when we swallow our ands between words, whence my Americanized name for this dish, Lentils ‘n pasta or Pintos ‘n pasta. These belong to a species of pasta called minestra, which is small pasta mixed with vegetables in a broth, and eaten with a spoon—you can think of it either as a soupy pasta or as a chunky soup.  Since these ministre usually have an onion base, I’ll dub this brothy species pasta soup, in contradistinction to the oily species of pasta sauté already introduced. The most famous specimen of this species is the biggest of them, minestrone, which uses nearly a dozen vegetables, but most minestre use but one, the best known of these among the Gentiles being pasta e faggioli.

Pasta e faggioli is not hard to make, but there are differing varieties from different parts of Italy, and seasonings change depending on the bean favored.  The Tuscans, for example, like white beans, which being somewhat bland are often flavored with tomato and rosemary, a combination I find unpleasantly tangy. They also use meat broth instead of water, which may well make sense when you’re cooking bland beans, but which detracts from the native tastiness of the brown beans that prevail down south where my people come from.  My family favors the thin-skinned pinto beans, although my father has of late been preferring pink beans (he’s susceptible to both whims and trends).  I personally favor my mother’s recipe over my father’s.  Her recipe uses the aromatic trio of onion, carrot, and celery, and adds a sweet green at the end, such as spinach or escarole, or in the case of lentils, perhaps a bitter green instead, like dandelion or chicory.  My father’s recipe (which to me has the look of prison food, but which some of my cousins really like) adds broccoli flowerets to lone-boiled pink or rosado beans , and at the end, after all is cooked, raw extra virgin olive oil.  (I don’t need to tell you salt is added, do I?)

I made lentils tonight because I was short on time and they don’t require the  rehydrating soak that beans do.  Whenever I cook legumes, I pour them out onto the kitchen counter and spread them out in one layer; then I sift through them all in small batches, flinging away anything that looks in any way irregular, erring on the side of condemning the innocent rather than sparing the guilty.  What you want not to miss is a stone you could crack a tooth on; although the chances are very small, legumes are cheap and abundant enough that you really don’t want to be that one in thousands who has to admit he lost a tooth to legumes.

I rinse the vetted legumes well in a couple of changes of water, and them dump them into a pot and cover them with several inches of water rising to at least three times the volume of the legumes.  In the case of beans, you have to get started at breakfast time.  Bring the pinto beans to a boil and boil them for one minute.  Then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and leave it sit until dinnertime.  By dinnertime, the beans will have absorbed half the water, grown big with it, and be ready for cooking.  (The alternative is to begin soaking them in cold water the night before, for dinner the next day.)  In the case of lentils, soaking in water is not only unnecessary, it’s inadvisable, because they soften and become mealy.  [In times of famine, war, or disaster, you could consider canned beans.]

What I like about my mother’s recipe is that the aromatic trio not only anoints the legumes with their amiable aromas but also lend them their rosy glow.  In the old country they used to sauté these vegetables a bit in oil before adding them to the beans, but my mother sees no difference in taste if you just add them raw into the pot with the beans.  I disagree.  I have returned to the ways of my mother’s mothers.  Also, my mother prefers regular olive oil, but I have gone over to my father’s preference for extra virgin.  What can I say?  I am the child of a mixed marriage.

I turn the heat on under the pot of lentils to bring it to a boil while I sauté the aromatic trio.  For half a bag of lentils, I chop half an onion fine, first slicing it lengthwise into ¼-in. strips, and then finely crosswise.  I pour out a not shallow pool of extra virgin olive oil into a sauté pan (say, ¼ cup), add the chopped onion with a shower of salt, cover the pan for initial pre-steaming, and turn the heat up only to medium, as the virgin doesn’t like heat.  While the onion is coming to a sizzle, I chop carrot and celery fine—first in ¼-in. strips, but this time somewhat less finely crosswise, so that they remain visible in the end—with the bulk of the carrot and celery together equaling that of the onion.  Once the onion works itself up into steamy sizzling, I take off the cover and continue flipping it now and again until it becomes translucent and perfumey.  Then I add in the carrot and celery with a shower of salt and grindings of black pepper, and flip it around with the onion.  (In the case of lentils, I have also been sneaking in a very little finely chopped garlic, ever since I heard that my aunt’s Sicilian in-laws make their pasta e lenticchie with garlic rather than onion.)

While the trio gently sizzles away, I chop a couple of pelati, just for color.  What are pelati, you ask?  A very important question, Gentile Reader. Very often in my people’s cooking just a little tomato is added for color, the final color desired being more orange than red.  I only ever use whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy.  Right now I’m using Pastosa; I also get Cento from supermarkets, but only the cans imported from Italy, never the domestic, and only the whole peeled, never the chopped, never the crushed. I also never get the pricey San Marzano tomatoes lauded by gourmets; I don’t have money to waste on hype.  The Roma variety of tomato as cultivated in Italy is critical to my people’s dishes because of the density of its pulp and the intensity of its flavor.  There is no substitute, short of canning your own Jersey Romas each summer, which my parents do by the half‑ton (which is what one of my Gentile friends delightedly calculated their annual 25 bushels come to). 

It is just as important that you not overuse tomato as that you use the right sort.  So much bad Italian-American cooking is just so many permutations of red sauce.  It’s all the same single, familiar, proletarian taste satisfaction, drowning all other flavors and textures.  Of course, at the opposite extreme is the bourgeois smothering of everything with the priciest extra virgin olive oil your gourmet market can get you to buy, and thinking your food very sophisticated for that.  I saw a boutique in Princeton that sells nothing but pricey olive oils and pricey pottery to serve it in, for people with more money than sense, if you ask me.

The tomato bits in this minestra are meant to add but hints of color and acidity to the legumes.  I used only two nice sized pelati, and saved the rest of the can for other such use in the next few days, emptying it into a plastic container and sprinkling some salt on top to preserve against mold.  I seeded the pelati (my mother would call this playing house), by cutting them across the middle and gently squeezing each half so that the seeds flow out with the watery liquid.  Then I chopped the tomato somewhat fine.  Once the aromatic trio turns all glisteny and perfumey, I add the tomato bits to the sizzling trio and flip it around a bit, to get one and all well acquainted, before dumping the whole panful into the now boiling pot of lentils, together with a couple of teaspoons of salt (I know that the gourmets say salt splits the skins, but it also doesn’t cook in if you wait till the end).  I cover the pot with the lid ajar and let it cook. 

The lentils cook in a short time, as short as half an hour.  Beans require a longer time, as much as an hour.  The only sure test is to taste and see if you like the bite.  Before they’re fully done, I add in coarsely chopped spinach.  Tonight I used bagged spinach, because the market didn’t have any fresh (which spared me the trouble of trimming and washing it in 3 changes of water).  When I use the bag, I look for mature, dusty looking stuff, not that young tender green spinach fitter for salad than for cooking.  (I’ve also used frozen chopped spinach without qualms of conscience.)  Spinach only needs five minutes to cook.  At the end, you of course taste and decide whether your legumes would like more salt or extra extra virgin olive oil—adding a little raw in at the end is always a nice little concession to Dad.

Now there’s the decision of which maccherone to boil.  (When I was a kid, we never said pasta, always maccheroni; to this day, I’m unsure of the difference in meaning, except that pasta seems to me a generic term, whereas maccheroni is specific to the myriad varieties of machine-made dried pasta.)  The maccheroni have to be small enough to fit with the legumes on a spoon.  Tonight I chose orecchiette for my lentils—little rough ‘n ridged caps.  A nice choice for pinto beans are little tubular ditalini.  In a pinch, I’ll use small shells, conchiglie.  But if I have patience for it, one of the nicest choices is broken spaghetti or linguine:  I break them into pieces half the length of my thumb, and then for variety further crush the whole mass, here and there, turning it over and over, wrapped in a kitchen cloth.   

Try to make only as much maccheroni as you’re going to eat, because minestre like pasta ‘n lentils don’t reheat well, the maccheroni absorbing the broth and becoming mushy.  The best thing for leftovers is to save the legumes in their broth and boil maccheroni fresh to add in to it reheated.  Whatever your choice of shape, boil your maccheroni with a handful of salt, to a couple minutes short of ready, and retrieve a mugful of cooking water, before barely draining your pasta and transferring it slushy into the pot of simmering legumes.  Finish cooking the pasta with the legumes, adding pasta water as needed to keep it as soupy as you like.  Taste to see when the pasta is al dente or tender-firm, and see if it needs more salt or oil—salt and oil being what all vegetables like, want, and need, as I trust you by now well know.

To my own long trained taste for legumes, water is the way to go with lentils or pintos, because they make their very own broth and their flavor comes through pure.  It also suits my Lenten abstinence not to use chicken or beef broth.  But if you are a carnivorous heir of the Protestant rebellion and have no regard for either Popish penances on Fridays or vegan scrupulosity, then you can try using chicken or beef broth for stronger flavor, but I’d advise your trying it half ‘n half with water before trying all broth.  Of course, if you’re going to lapse from the true recipe, why stop there? Might as well throw some cubed pancetta into the aromatic sauté as well.  I must denounce it, but what’s the denunciation of a Campanian ultramontane like me to a Nordic reformer like you?

A point of controversy on our side of the Alps is whether to add grated cheese or not.  By now you can guess what my father has to say about it.  But when I reported my father’s prohibition to my Bolognese friend, he professed with such orthodox resolve in his eyes that he and his family would refuse to eat pasta e lenticchie without cheese, that I just had to try mixing some in, and I took the point.  However, even leaving out the question of whether it should be Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, I harbor scruples of conscience.  Herodotus in his Histories tells of a tribe that refused to accept any true saying from a bad man, so that if a bad man said a true thing, they would have a good man repeat it, so as to accept it from his mouth.  If only I could find a southern Italian who would refuse to eat pasta e lenticchie without cheese, I could recommend it to you, Gentle Reader, with a clearer conscience.