My mother loved to tell the story about when her mother, my Noni, asked her to make some lentil soup. It was her first time cooking lentils and did not realize that four cups of them — virtually the whole package — was far too large a quantity because of how they swell in cooking. She kept adding broth to the lentils as they cooked, which was quickly absorbed, and she ended up with enough to serve an army.
I think of my mother’s story when I make the soup. Italians have lentil soup on New Year’s Day believing it will bring good luck for the year. My grandmother was diligent about this custom. There were many “old wives tales” like this — some followed so obsessively that they were more like superstitions rather than customs; bread cannot be faced downwards as it is rejecting of God. Birds in the house are a no no — no pictures, no paintings, no ceramics depicting birds, it might trigger bad luck. I often wonder how these stories got started. Someone should do a book.
My mother was one of 10 children, which meant my grandmother had to be very careful how she spent my grandfather’s paycheck. He worked as a foreman in a shoe factory and he often brought home pieces of animal hides so he could do piece work on weekends — a way to earn extra money — and engaged his kids in doing so. Noni was always either in her garden in good weather or in the kitchen putting up what she grew or making something delicious in her basement kitchen, which was meant to be used in summer, but in her old age it was her preferred space for cooking. The foods that my grandmother shopped for were all common in those days. However, she would use every part of the animal, going so far as to use the stomach lining for sausage casings and using bones for soup. She always had a good relationship with the butcher who happily gave her beef necks and chicken feet. Nothing was wasted.
Waverly Root, one of America’s original food writers (born in Rhode Island in 1903), wrote on common foods from ancient times to the present (almost — he died in 1982). In one of my favorite books of his, “Food,” he tells the story of his father returning home during World War I with a large paper bag containing what looked like a heap of gravel. Lentils, according to his father, were one of the foods that patriotic Americans were urged to eat in the interest of the wartime economy.
“It is on record that that lentils were cultivated in the gardens of a king of Babylon in 800 B.C.,” he wrote. There was a long history of how the lentils finally made their way to India, which is the largest lentil-consuming country in the world, the Middle East being second. “Lentils have been consistently cheap, which has earned them the contempt of the snobbish and the pretentious, though they have simultaneously received praise from those capable of judging foods by other criteria than price,” explained Root. On today’s menus, you will find a variety of lentil dishes because today’s chefs appreciate their food value as well as the possibilities for creativity from soup to salad to a ragout under a nicely grilled chop. Think lentil soup with a side dish of feta, olives, salad and a crusty bread with a good olive oil for dipping. I like to serve it with a small bowl of Greek yogurt, with chopped mint and a little honey mixed in.
When I started my restaurant in 1973, I put together a menu, mostly Italian with a few Greek dishes. These included a Greek salad, Spanakopita, Moussaka and Baklava. I made up a dish that won a prize of $25 in the Boston Herald, which I called Spinach Pie, that was sort of Greek and was a customer favorite. I had never been to Greece, still haven’t, but I love the flavors, especially feta and Greek oregano and olive oil. We often have a Greek salad at home with olives, feta, red onions and homemade croutons. Also a regular item in my house is a warm Caesar salad — just brown some garlic in a little olive oil on the stove top grill or a skillet and place a half head of romaine on top of the garlic and brown it on both sides. At serving time, I think it’s nice to sprinkle some more olive oil and fresh lemon juice over the greens along with a topping of grated Pecorino Romano. Some white anchovies are also a great addition.
A simple soup like lentil is graduated to a new level with the bones from a few leftover chops or leftover tomato sauce or gravy from chicken or turkey. If you adopt the attitude of the old timers like our grandmothers who had a “waste not want not attitude” you will not only save money you will feel more adventuresome with delicious rewards, sometimes very surprising.
There are so many varieties of lentils available. Experiment with them until you find one that you really like.
Homemade broth is always delicious, but today there are many good broths on the market, beef, chicken or vegetable, all good.
There are beautiful carrots in several colors that look beautiful in a soup or stew or pot pie.
Most markets have fresh herbs available all year. Thyme, rosemary perennials will last a few weeks. The annuals like flat leaf parsley, basil and mint have a shorter life. Treat yourself to the fresh herbs that add so much to your cooking.
When you establish the makings of a good recipe, your own substitutions will give you so much satisfaction. For example, the idea of a moussaka which ordinarily calls for ground lamb and eggplant can be just as delicious with ground beef, pork or turkey. And instead of eggplant, try it with zucchini. Think of recipes as a starting point from which you find the confidence to be creative!
Moussaka, my way. Serves four to six depending on appetites.
This is a great company dish. Can be made the day before, too.
Slice four medium potatoes into half inch slices, no need to peel the light skinned ones.
Place in a saute pan barely covered with water and a teaspoon of salt. Pierce after 15 minutes to check for doneness. Drain and put aside.
Cut up a medium onion into small dice and heat a few tbsp. olive oil and saute the onion with a few cloves of garlic till lightly browned in a pan. Add a pound and a half of your choice of ground meat, stirring to brown all over. Add a cup and a half of tomato sauce and a quarter tsp. cinnamon if you like, stir to combine. Add a cup of grated mozzarella and several tsp. of grated Parmesan. Set aside.
On an oiled stove top grill brown several slices of eggplant or zucchini, on both sides. Set aside.
Now it is time to assemble. In a pan that will go from oven to table spray a little olive oil. Line the bottom with the potatoes, pour in half of the ground meat, tomato sauce, cheese mixture and spread the mixture over evenly. Arrange the zucchini or eggplant slices on top of this and then pour in the remaining meat mixture.
In a small saucepan heat till frothy five tbsp. butter. Add five tbsp. flour and stir well. Gradually add two and a half cups of milk and whisk till it thickens, stirring all the while. Add a sprinkle of nutmeg and stir.
In a bowl beat four egg yolks and pour a little of the hot milk mixture over and whisk well. Add the rest of the milk mixture and a half cup of grated Parmesan. Pour this over the casserole and spread evenly.
Bake for one hour until bubbly. and browned on top. Serve with a chilled green bean salad and Baklava for dessert. You will be very happy, and so will everyone else lucky enough to be invited to dine with you!