August 18, 2009

Lentils: The Black Pearl of the Mediterranean.

Lovely Lentil Origins and an Exquisite Recipe

~elephantjournal.com columnist Peggy Markel

My favored legume this season has been the black lentil, lenticchie nere from Sicily.

I have been buying them from a small vendor of grains and legumes in Sant’Ambrogio market in Florence. They remind me of the dark mini lentils grown in volcanic soil from the tiny island of Ustica.

An ancient island, it was first inhabited by the Phoenicians. It’s older than the Aeolian islands and is actually the rocky top of a an undersea volcano. Ustica means “dark rock” — therefore called the black pearl of the Mediterranean. Today it stands protected as a marine reserve.

I walked the two-mile radius of the interior through fields of wildflowers. Typical of the Mediterranean, I came upon wild figs, wild capers, wild prickly pears, and cultivated almond groves and bean fields. Islands are usually known more for their fish and this is surely the case here. I rode around in a gomone (a raft with a motor) in the surrounding sea. I saw medusas among the rocks in a natural pool that I almost jumped into. The water was inviting, crystal clear and fresh — I imagine that’s exactly what the jellyfish thought as well. Exhilarating would have been an understatement had I showed up a minute before.

Here on the island, lentils are served with fish. Not a usual combination. Yet, from the point of view of locals, what grows together, goes together.

Everything about this small, isolated island was rich and concentrated, worn by eons of wind, sun and saltwater. If you ask me, the real black pearl of the Mediterranean is not the island itself, but it’s native daughter, la lenticchia nera.

I am a great fan of the one-dish meal. I love these lentils as they take no time to cook. Soaking is unnecessary. They provide meaty nourishment and are known for aiding digestive healing. The bitterness of sauteed chickory adds a juicy, yet earthy element that goes well with the beans. I have used an egg to accompany the lentils as it fits the composition of the dish, adds protein and color, and creates a rich sauce. For the seafood version, I recommend a swift trip to the hinterland, just a two-and-half-hour ferry ride from Palermo.

Lenticchie Nere con Cicoria e un Ouvo Bello Bollito

2 cups lentils
1 head of garlic, cooked whole in the broth
1 sprig of fresh sage
1 t of ground cumin
1 tiny dried red pepper
a drizzle of olive oil
(salt to taste, once lentils are almost cooked)

1 fresh chicory, (like a head of napa cabbage) cleaned and chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped fine
(salt to taste)

4 eggs, soft boiled for 3 minutes (salt & pepper, to taste)

Cook your lentils in plenty of fresh water. Bring to a boil, then down to a simmer. Choose a heavy bottomed pot or terracotta.
Add a whole garlic head, cleaned of any loose skin. The garlic slowly infuses the broth and flavors the beans. Add sage, pepperoncino, cumin, a drizzle of olive oil and simmer about 1/2 hour or so, until the beans are 90% cooked. Beans double in size, so check for liquid so the beans don’t burn. Bean broth or pot liquor is also delicious to keep if you choose to make a soup. Add salt — at least 1/4 t for each cup for digestion — then to one’s taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes, then turn off heat.
Clean and chop chicory and saute in extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) and one clove of chopped garlic. Add pinch of salt to flavor. Cook until tender — green color remains vibrant and not gray.

Put 4 whole eggs in the shell in a small pot covered with water. Bring to a boil. Set aside. let sit for 15 minutes.

Assemble on one plate:

a bed of Ustican black lentils
a scoop of chickory on top
a peeled soft boiled egg, cut in half and presented on top of the dish

Add a fresh pinch of cumin, salt a dash of freshly cracked pepper and a drizzle of EVOO.

Enjoy the wonder of treasured ancient tastes!

PEGGY MARKEL’S Culinary Adventures in Tuscany, Sicily and Morocco bring friends to the table in pursuit of pleasure, culture and community, and an authentic experience of the materia prima that make for a truly good life: peggymarkel.com.

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