Laurel Herman
Chef Instructor, Culinary Storyteller, and Culinary Medicine

Lentils with Pasta, from La Cucina Povera, the Kitchen of the Poor

It is winter in the United States. Where I live, there is a damp cold that goes right to your bones. I grew up in Long Island, New York  a similar climate, but colder. I was fortunate to grow up in an Italian neighborhood, and even more blessed to have spent time in Mimi’s kitchen. Jewish grandmothers, Italian grandmothers, they knew their way around the kitchen. My girlfriend’s grandmother Mimi, was the ultimate Italian chef, spending the better part of her day in the kitchen, always dressed to the nines. Mimi, always in a dress, with her hair and makeup done, never spilled a drop of food on her clothes. She was an immaculate kitchen goddess in my eyes, a Madonna working her magic with the lightest  graceful touch, and watching her cook was like watching live art.

Like many immigrants to the New World, our grandmothers knew how to stretch a dollar. This dish is known in many Italian households as  Poor Man’s Meat, a delicious hearty meal that could easily feed a family of 6  in a matter of an hour  for less than $5.00. This was about survival. Most came over with little to no money, worked in sweat shops, and toiled to provide a better future for their children and grandchildren. We used to call it the American dream. 50 years on and  many of us are the working poor once again. We need this, more than ever to get us through, and help us forget hard times.

There are many versions, of this simple dish. Some use pancetta, but I remember it being  simple fare with no frills, and lots of warming healthy garlic. Our grandmothers knew what science knows now, that lentils were a cheap healthy substitute for meat and combined with pasta, made a complete protein, that would sustain long working hours. This peasant food was the original Culinary Medicine. 

Lentils naturally have a low glycemic index, so you could fill up, without guilt and walk away with a full and happy belly. Singing the praises of garlic, I am preaching to the choir. We are all acquainted with the benefits  of garlic. High in cardiovascular benefits, garlic is often the preventative and cure for the common cold and wards off illness. It lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, so if you know someone with a Sicilian temper, its good to have around.

A grandmother instinctively serves her role as the guardian of her family, a matriarch infusing each morsel with protective and unconditional love. I was blessed to have two. There was always a high quality locatelli to grate on the pasta, so so good. Oh and by the way, they never measured, so this is merely a guideline. This is my version. I always make too much, it gives me  a reason to share. Put on some Pavarotti, grab a glass of red wine, and don’t forget the love. This is peasant food elevated to the realm of the Divine. 

Ingredients :

2 cups green lentils rinsed well

2 carrots diced

3 celery ribs diced

3-4  large cloves garlic smashed

1.2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

small can of crushed tomatoes

olive oil

1 qt chicken or veggie stock

sea salt  and pepper to taste

grated loccatelli (optional or vegan grated cheese)

Rinse the lentils and set aside. In a heavy bottom pot, set the stove to medium heat, drizzle a generous amount of olive oil. Add in the carrots and celery and saute for a minute or two before adding in the garlic and crushed red pepper. Depending on your personal heat meter, you can add more  after the dish is cooked to spice it further, but this dish is not so much about heat as it is garlic.

Add in the lentils and stir to marry the flavors. Now add the broth. You will probably need more broth or water. I added tomatoes to round out the flavor, so add those in about 30 minutes in. Sometimes tomatoes inhibit the cooking of lentils/beans, so its more of an ingredient to add in the process, not in the beginning.  Lower the flame and cover the pot. You want to make sure the lentils  are covered with with liquid and remember that is is more stew than soup. As they cook down, you may need more liquid. Cook until lentils are soft about 45 minutes to an hour

Make the pasta. I use gluten free but you could use any good quality spaghetti. Keep it vegan with no cheese, this dish is so versatile. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Happy cooking, Love Laurel

About the Author
Laurel Herman is Chef Instructor and Culinary Storyteller, and Culinary Medicine practitioner, residing in Richmond, Virginia. A classically trained chef in the European style( Thames Valley University, London, U.K. and The Institute for Integrative Nutrition) Her style is anything but classic, its fun, and relaxed. A lifelong career in food, Laurel had the unique experience of being the only woman in a kitchen brigade of 30 men, ( 40 years ago) earning their respect and affection through hard work and determination. Laurel's passion is bringing people together through food, her joy is to watch people arrive as strangers, and leave as friends. Her workshop and retreat work use storytelling combined with cooking and music to evoke a sense of remembrance. She teaches that cooking is a healing modality anyone can learn, but mostly that it brings people together. She currently teaches at Mise en Place Cooking School, and various venues throughout Richmond including a program for City of Richmond Employees. Her newest endeavor for 2020 is a fun online teaching course, and hopes to bring food education to food desserts throughout the city and surrounding areas. She is a strong believer that one way we can fight racism and bigotry of any kind is by helping people have access to clean and abundant food, supporting farmers markets and local vendors. Although not a chef himself, her favorite mythological character is Robin Hood, the revolutionary defender of social equality. Her books, The Blissed Out Chef was published in 2015 and the Inner Kitchen, Balboa press in 2011.
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