Lentil Bolognese. Pasta Comfort food.

Two years ago, my favourite little Italian restaurant closed. Joe and his wife ran “Cafe Mingo”, located in Sydney Road, Brunswick. Their pasta dishes were so satisfying and cheap. Each night they would chalk up a new pasta dish or two. I remember having this vegetarian pasta one evening and I have played with it ever since. If you asked Joe where his recipes came from, he would just shrug and say “from the back of a Barilla packet!!” At the end of a meal, Joe would surreptitiously slide a bottle of home-made grappa across the table, along with a plate of wafer biscuits. It was like visiting their family home. How dare they retire!

This following is my vegetarian version of a Bolognese sauce, in the style of Cafe Mingo. The Bolognese would be horrified! What, no meat?

The soffritto
Three tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
one onion, finely chopped
one celery stick  finely chopped
1 carrot finely chopped
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
salt.
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The sauce
100 grams of Puy lentils
100 g of portobello or swiss brown mushrooms
10 grs of dried porcini mushrooms
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
one large tomato, seeded and finely chopped
oregano 
salt and pepper
 The pasta
100 g per person Casareccia or any other pasta that holds the sauce
grated parmesan, reggiano or grana padano, to serve
 
 
  1. Cook the lentils in a heavy based saucepan with plenty of water and a bay leaf. Do not add salt as this toughens lentils. Cook for around 20 minutes, so that the lentils still hold their shape and aren’t mushy. Drain.Image
  2. Soak the porcini mushrooms in boiling water, around 3/4 cup, to soften for 20 minutes. Remove the re-hydrated mushrooms, chop roughly and reserve liquid.Image
  3.  In a large heavy based saucepan or deep sided frying pan, heat the olive oil, then add the soffritto ingredients, adding the garlic last. Stir well and cook over medium heat for five minutes until softened. Adding a pinch of salt helps the onions sweat. Do not let the onion colour.Image
  4. Then add the finely chopped portobello mushrooms, cook for 5 minutes, lowering the heat, then add the chopped porcini mushrooms and stir for a further 3 minutes.
  5. Add the drained lentils, stir, then the mushroom soaking liquid, leaving behind any sand or grit, and continue to cook on low.
  6. Bring a large pot of pasta to the boil, add salt, then add casareccia or other pasta and cook as directed on the packet. Image
  7. As the pasta is cooking, add two tablespoons of tomato paste, and a finely chopped tomato (optional) to the lentil mixture. 
  8. Season well, add herbs, such as dried oregano, and check that the sauce is ‘wet’ enough.Image
  9. When the pasta is ready, scoop out a cup of cooking water before draining. ( I always retain a cup of the cooking water in case the sauce needs it- a good habit to get into.) Add a little to the sauce to loosen the sauce.
  10.  Serve the Bolognese through the pasta, with grated parmigiana.ImageImage

Spring Soup – Tutto Fa Brodo

It was about twenty years ago. I was sitting in my first class of Italian B ( B standing for Beginners). I was terrified! ¬†The introductory class was mostly in English, sprinkled with bits of Italian here and there. The lecturer, Walter ( say this with a V ) suddenly planted an explosive seed in my brain when he said, ‘Tutto Fa Brodo’. ¬†This was an epiphanic moment, the lightning bolt: a simple Italian proverb that swept me into the wonderful world of Italian language and its culture.¬†Tutto fa brodo¬†literally means ‘everything makes soup’, ¬†or, ‘whatever you put in soup will work’, ¬†or metaphorically, ‘a little bit of everything is good for you’. ¬†Italian proverbs invloving food and wine are innumerable and often humourous, highlighting times of need, frugality and seasonality. When I gather bits and pieces from the¬†orto, my vegetable garden, the mantra begins anew, ‘Tutto Fa Brodo, Tuttto fa Brodo’. ¬†No vegetable soup is ever the same. That’s the lovely thing about soup, the recipes are always so flexible. Use what’s on hand.

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Today’s late Spring garden provides the last of the cavolo nero; it’s a bit woody and needs to be used, silver beet (chard), a perennial in the garden, early season broad beans, side shooting brocoli, leeks, spring onions and all sorts of herbs.

I always start with a little soffritto or quick fry of a few ingredients to give the soup a base on which to build. A typical Italian soffritto includes finely diced onion, celery and carrot.  I often make one with garlic, anchovies and chopped rosemary, a little trick I learnt from Marcella Hazan years ago.  As the anchovies melt, they give a salty earthiness to a soup. Of course they can be omitted.

This is not so much a recipe, but an ode to Spring in the form of soup. It’s so green, it makes you feel holy!

The Soffritto

3 or more garlic cloves, finely chopped.

1 small branch of rosemary, leaves stripped, finely chopped.

6 anchovies, chopped

3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive oil.

Other soup ingredients. 

2 leeks, finely sliced across, pale parts only. ( save other bits for stock)

2 waxy potatoes, eg Nicola or Dutch Creams, diced.

5 leaves Cavolo Nero or Tuscan Kale, remove centre stem if tough, then shred.

3 large leaves of silver beet, (chard) rolled then cut across finely. I like to include the stem.

a few handfuls of young shelled broadbeans,

fresh herbs such as parsely, oregano

salt, pepper to taste

vegetable stock cube, optional, or stock.

grated parmigaino, reggiano or grana padano

Method.

  1. Heat the oil in a large heavy based saucepan. Add the anchovies, rosemary and garlic, stirring the whole time so that the anchovies melt. *
  2. Then add leeks and potatoes, keep stirring, then the Tuscan kale and silver beet, keep stirring, then cover well with stock or water.
  3. Cook on medium heat until the potatoes are soft and the greens are cooked but still vibrant.
  4. Add the baby broad beans (no need to double shell the young ones).
  5. Cook for a few minutes longer. Add more hot stock if you prefer a wetter soup. Taste. Add a stock cube if needed.  Season. Add fresh herbs.
  6. Stir through some grated parmigiano. Serve with more parmigiana at the table, along with some very good bread.

For a more substantial soup, you could also add tiny pasta shapes towards the end of cooking, for example risoni or orzo, cooked to the required time.

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