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Lentil Tales of Autumn (And Sausage Sunsets)

Salsiccia con Lenticchie (Sausage with lentils), a guest post by Gillian Nevers

I used to wonder why I started to crave sausages and lentils in the fall, just as the leaves on the trees began to change color. For a while I thought it was because of their palate – lentils range in colors from yellow to red-orange to green to brown and, even black – or their earthy taste. Then, one day while looking through photos taken on one of many trips to the Abruzzo, I came upon several taken at an autumn picnic next to a small, wetland refuge near Capestrano. I think it was the day after Emily’s birthday, but I’m not sure. However, I am sure that among all the wonderful things we ate that day, my favorite was the salsiccia con lenticchie, prepared by my dear friend, the late Linda Mantini.

Linda and Dan near Capestrano, 2010 picnic

We worked off a wonderful lunch of party left-overs, with a stroll around a little lake, attempting to identify a variety of water birds. Then we drove into Capestrano for cafe and gelato. While the rest of the family sat outside the bar soaking up what was left of the afternoon sun, Silvia and I walked across the square to a small shop. It was one of those dark little places you enter through a swinging tile curtain. An unmemorable place, except for the calendar of Mussolini displayed along with pope and kitten calendars, and a bushel of brown lentils on the floor in front of the counter. Silvia insisted on buying five kilos of the lentils for me. Knowing I was flying home in a few days, and worried about luggage weight restrictions, I protested. When Silvia said she would keep half, I agreed. Now, I regret not having taking all five kilos, as those lentils were some of the best I’ve every eaten and would have been worth the extra baggage charge!

Emily below CapestranoBack home, I searched through my Italian cookbooks for a recipe that came close to Linda’s. Everywhere I looked, the ingredients were things I could source locally, except for the sausage—it’s hard to find a coil of luganega, especially on short-notice, in Madison, Wisconsin. So, I substituted Italian sausage—a mix of hot and mild—from Fraboni’s, a family-owned Italian deli that’s been in Madison as long as I can remember (when I gave birth to Joshua forty-plus years ago, my friend Kathy smuggled prosciutto, crusty bread and gorgonzola into my hospital room, so I wouldn’t starve)! I served my version of salsiccia con lenticchie to friends who would later join us on a hiking and cooking trip in the Abruzzo.

Linda-inspired pasta & lentils

Every fall, when I get the urge to make salsiccia con lenticchie, it seems to strike me on the day I MUST eat it. So, I have to use what sausage is close at hand. In addition to Italian sausage, I’ve tried American brats, local pork sausage, and Spanish Chorizo. All add their own character to the dish, but no matter the sausage I use, my version never comes close to Linda’s.

Here’s my improvised version:

  • 3/4 pound brown lentils
  • 2 ounces chopped pancetta or smoked bacon
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finally chopped
  • 4 to 8 pure pork sausages – If you can find luganega, that’s the best.


Soak the lentils for about an hour. Fry pancetta or bacon until the fat melts. Add onion, garlic and celery and cook until soft. Add the drained lentils and cover with water. Simmer for 25 minutes, or until tender. In the meantime, roast, fry or grill the sausage.

Serve the sausages on a bed of lentils.

(Editor’s note…if you want it spicy, add hot peppers, and if you want to prepare long before serving, cut the sausage into inch-long chunks and mix into the pot of lentils, cover and keep warm until serving).

Carbonara and Muse

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Oh, by the way, hospital food is not good the world over, Silvia and I snuck prosciutto, good bread and gorgonzola into the hospital when Sofia and Emily were born, it’s still my ultimate comfort food, 42 years on. – Joshua

Lentils, Sausage, Fall Sun and Abruzzo Mountain Air Are Good For You

A Plate of Salsiccie e Lenticchi and il Gran Sasso

Carbonara and Muse

A Slice of History – Pizza Where (They Say) it All Began

Enjoying the oldest tourist trap in naples.

There are two things that Neapolitans all seem to be experts on: espresso and pizza. I have known people from Naples who brought their own tap water north to Italy’s fashion capital because they were convinced that it’s just not the same without their water.

The water idea is a bit overblown, but in the right place, I have tasted some of the best espresso in the world here (Bar Mexico in Piazza Garibaldi across from the main train station is one of the best http://wp.me/pfkhI-70 ). The real question is, can we really tell the difference between an excellent neapolitan pizza and a sublimely excellent neapolitan pizza? And if we cant’ get the best, is it really such a tragedy to settle for excellent?

Pizza at Brandi......

For some people living under the shadow of Vesuvius, it is. Which is why they frown on Brandi.

Brandi, on a side street of via Chiaia, not far from the San Carlo opera house and the Royal Palace, claims to be the place that made the first pizza named for Queen Margaret of Savoy, Italy’s queen in 1889. The “pizza margherita” is pizza at it’s most basic and essential – dough, mozzarella, tomato sauce, a drop of oil and a few basil leaves to give it the three colors of the Italian flag. Choice ingredients are one of the reasons why it can be so good: buffalo mozzarella from the town of Aversa and tomatoes gown in soil embedded with volcanic ash from Vesuvius are a large part of it. The art of the the few pizzaioli (pizza-makers) who know the exact mixture of flour the best timing for the yeast according to the weather can take whole mix over the top to pizza heaven.

Pizza and fried antipasti at Brandi, Via chiaia

Brandi, despite the history, is not considered the pinnacle of pizzerie like olther famous places like Da Michele, Starita and Sorbillo by the pizza lovers I know here.

In fact, among many it’s reputation in town is not very good. It appears for years it rested on the laurels of history and the convenience of its location and forgot the pizza part. But other friends her have reminded me they got their act together and have talented pizza makers again.

Which is good because the last time my girls were in town with me we happened to be around the corner from Brandi in Piazza Plebiscito just when our sore feet and grumbling stomachs caught up to us. It was early – only 8 p.m. – so we were able to swing the impossible on a Saturday night: the last of the eight little tables outside on the street. We ordered a plate of fried antipasti and four Pizza Margheritas. The two old men singing and serenading the guests had the place as their official territory, making their presence more friendly and less imposing and, of course, we sang along. The atmosphere was both touristy and authentic, and above all fun.

PIzza Margherita yum

Were we missing the best pizzas the world has to offer? Probably. But as we nibbled away at our our excellent pizzas in the cool evening air, we really didn’t care.

Antica Pizzeria – Ristorante Brandi, Salita S. Anna di Palazzo (on the corner of via Chiaia) http://www.brandi.it, Tel 081- 416928
Brandi dates back to 1780, but under another name.

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Mozzarella Cheese on FoodistaMozzarella Cheese

Hard White Weat

The Great Wild Asparagus Hunt

Or another fun thing to do among the olive trees in early spring.

I am not really fond of asparagus. It’s one of the few foods I recoiled from as a kid that’s still on my yuck list. It wasn’t the flavor that got to me–I did like nibbling off the buds– it was the mix of mush and stringiness of the stalks.

Olive trees in Navelli

Other people seem to go crazy for asparagus. Although, I would never eat it, I used to make a light asparagus and cream pizza as an antipasto for parties. The recipe was simple. I rolled out pre-made pasta sfoglia (Italian filo dough), spread a thin layer of cooking cream over it, added some diced white asparagus, and sprinkled salt and a generous grating of nutmeg on top. I baked it until the dough rose and was a light brown and the cream started to turn the same color as the nutmeg. Then, I cut it into little wedges or squares and served it.

It must have been good, because it was usually the first hor’s d’oeuvre to go.

Asparagus in the wild

Wild asparagus is another story––perhaps, because hunting for them in the underbrush below the olive trees increases the desire to eat them. But, mainly because the flavor is more delicate and, if picked early, they are too small and thin to have that icky stringiness. Just before sundown, on Easter Saturday, we made a last minute decision to go hunting for some.

Our family’s olive trees are on the hillsides overlooking the Tirino river valley. Luigi guided us, reminding Pierluigi, Fania and me of where the asparagus hide out and what they look like in the wild. With an asparagus hunting stick (to lean on, or to clear away prickly plants) I hiked up the slope, zigzagging from tree to tree, seeking out little blueish-green stems, until my jacket pocket was half full and the sun was getting dangerously low.

View from Navelli's Olive Trees and Author

The view from the olive grove was full of flavor and rich color. The slope was steep, something I hadn’t noticed during my climb up the hill, my nose in the tall grass around the base of each ancient tree. Below me, beyond the state road that twisted through the valley, more olive trees appeared as little specks in the distance below. Higher up, I could see Passo Lanciano, the mountain pass to Pescara over Gran Sasso’s lower southern arm. Sunset was imminent, and hills and slopes rolled off into the distance like watercolor waves under purple-grey clouds.

Our goal was to have asparagus on pasta that evening, either sautéed, then mixed in with grated parmesan, or as a vegetarian substitute for the guanciale or bacon in Carbonara. However, dinner was already waiting for us when we returned.

Wild Asparagus: cleaned and diced

So, we had the spoils of our wild asparagus hunt the next night in a frittata (the Italian version of an omelet).

Oh, by the way, if what you hate about commercial asparagus is the texture, one solution is to puree them in a blender after they are well cooked. Mix with a bit of oil and parmesan, and use on pasta as you would sweet basil pesto.

– Joshua Lawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com


Almost a wild asparagus frittatta

Linda's wild asparagus frittata

Tirino Valley as seen from Navelli's olive trees April 3rd 2010

Asparagus on FoodistaAsparagus

Bread & Olive Oil, Not Just an Antipasto.

Light things can come in heavy packages

One of my favorite things that I remember Italian or Mediterranean fusion restaurants in the US serve was a plate bread and a few select olive oils as you were waiting for the antipasti (starters). I still love to watch the oil form a small puddle on a small white saucers, dip in the bread and taste different oils.

A puddle of tasty apulia olive oil - finger dipping good

The only curious thing about this good idea is that I’ve never seen it in restaurants in Italy. Well, once. But that was about ten years ago in an olive-oil themed place that had just opened in Milan. The owner got the idea after a few years working in restaurants in the US.
That is probably the only way Olive oil is not commonly served in restaurants here. But dripping good oil on good bread is still a passion of mine.
So when my friend Edoardo gave me what looked like a designer thermos and asked me to try the olive oil within, the first thing that came to mind was to soaking some freshly sliced bread with it and giving it a try.
Climate and variety does have a strong impact on the characteristics of olive oil, so when he told me it was Puglia, I had my doubts. Puglia (known as “Apulia” in English) is the heel of Italy’s boot and a major olive producer with a reputation for dense, rich, strong olive oils. Eduardo must have noticed what I was thinking because he added – “It’s not like you expect.”

A bottle of Bio Leave olive oil and an original statue by Alik Cavaliere

So last night, when I pulled it out to try with a slice of bread before dinner, I was pleased to learn he was right. This is a delicate, yellowish, lighter oil, and its low acidity made it roll smoothly over my tongue.
The name – Bio Leaf – and the packaging are unusual. I might even say courageous. But they both have a reason. “Bio” is because, as you would expect, the olives are grown and the oil is pressed using strict environmentally friendly methods. And the form and color of the bottle are to protect the oil from temperatures and the light.  It should should be available in parts of the US (for more information, try http://www.bioleafgroup.com).

By the by the way, Italians do love olive oil on bread. Silvia tells me that her after school or snack was often a slice of the rustic, dense bread L’Aquila is famous with the light, low-acidity oil from Navelli soaked in. And Sofia and I love both cleaning our salad bowl with a slice of bread. What better way to taste an excellent oil than on a great Italian bread – even the unsalted Tuscan loaf.
Much more fun than sucking it out of little cups as olive oil tasters do.

– Joshua Lawrence

Bread and Olive Oil

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Bio Leaf Olive Oil on Bread - Fresh

Bread and Olive Oil - Sunny Side Up

Olive Oil on FoodistaOlive Oil