Santo Stefano di Sessanio, host to the Let’s Blog Abruzzo conference that I’m attending in June (www.blogaway.org), is a quaint mountain village in Abruzzo that was largely abandoned when its impoverished inhabitants left in search of work in the years following World War II. In the early 1980s, a Danish developer launched Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, a hotel converted out of historic buildings with the intent of reviving and preserving the remote village and welcoming tourists without sacrificing its physical and cultural identity.
I was first introduced to Santo Stefano in the September 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, which lauded Sextantio’s preservation efforts and extolled the virtues of the town’s primary crop, lentils. I finally visited the village last summer and while my middle son, Stefano, was thrilled to explore the labyrinth of narrow streets and tunnel-like passages of the town that shared his name, I was eager to finally sample its delicate lenticchie. I brought home several kilos of the tiny, extraordinarily tender legumes and enjoyed the last of my stash for a feast of cotechino con lenticchie to ring in the New Year (garlicky sausage over a bed of lentils traditionally enjoyed in Italy on New Year’s Eve to bring prosperity and fortune in the coming year. The lentils are said to represent the coins soon to befall all who consume the dish within an hour of midnight.)
The lentil is thought to have arrived in Santo Stefano at the time of the Roman settlement, Sextantia and derives from an old and rare species that is cultivated only in the poor terrain found high in the mountains. These tiny, dark brown legumes are iron-rich and have skins that don’t separate during cooking. The harvest generally occurs during the last weeks of August and the Sagra delle Lenticchie festival takes place in Santo Stefano every September.
My lentil soup recipe isn’t traditional to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, but is a great vehicle for small lentils. To my knowledge, lenticchie di Santo Stefano aren’t yet widely available outside of Italy, but Castelluccio lentils from Umbria or French Puy lentils are good substitutes.
Zuppa di Lenticchie
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©
- 3 salt-packed anchovies (see notes below for cleaning directions)
- 2 shallots or 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 2 celery ribs, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling at the end
- 10 cups of water
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 heaping cups of small lentils such as Castelluccio or Puy, rinsed and picked over
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt and several grindings of freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley
Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a heavy-bottomed stainless steel or enameled cast iron pot and set over medium-low heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the chopped anchovies to the oil, lower the heat and, stirring frequently, allow them to cook until they seem as if they’ve dissolved or become part of the oil. Add the shallots, celery and garlic and sauté until the vegetables become soft and golden (if the anchovies start to seem too “crunchy”, add ¼ cup of water to the mixture). Add the water, bay leaves, additional 2 tablespoons of olive oil, black pepper and the lentils and raise the heat to high. When the water comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low and allow to gently simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes, add the carrots and salt and keep simmering for about 15-25 minutes more, tasting as it cooks to check for doneness. If the soup becomes too thick, add water a cup at a time (lentils absorb a lot of water, even after you’ve turned off the heat, so chances are, it will become too thick before it becomes too liquid.) When the lentils taste smooth and creamy, turn off the heat, adjust the salt and pepper, stir in the parsley and drizzle with your best olive oil (see notes below). Buon appetito!
Extra Two Cents: A peppery oil such as La Quagliera from Abruzzo would add a wonderful finishing touch to this rustic soup – http://www.gustiamo.com/cgi-bin/front_end/prodotto?id=76289). Also, homemade olive-oil croutons are a terrific accompaniment to the lentils – simply cut day-old bread into small cubes, drizzle with olive oil and toast in the oven at 375 degrees until they’re crunchy.
Preparing Anchovies: Hold the anchovies under cold running water and gently rub off the salt with your fingers. Pat them thoroughly dry with paper towels and transfer them to a cutting board. Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, make a small incision along the side and run your knife along the length of the anchovy. Gently peel back the top portion of the anchovy to reveal the backbone on the bottom portion. With the tip of your knife, gently remove the backbone and cut off the tail. Finely chop the anchovy fillets.
More Information about Santo Stefano: Here are a few other articles about Santo Stefano di Sessanio and its tasty lentils: