It's a classic central Italian pairing: Lenticchie e Salsiccia. Lentils and sausage. It reminds me of trips out to Umbria, usually in the fall or winter, and sometimes early spring. We'd spend a Sunday afternoon in Orvieto, enjoying the gorgeous churches and small shops, as well as some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants, in this hill town an hour outside of Rome. Or, we'd head out for a weekend in the country to a friend's house on the Tuscan-Umbrian border, just taking in the view and building fires and looking up at the stars after a full-table feast of simple, local fare. Or we'd visit friends in Citta' di Castello, not far from Lake Trasimeno, sharing a lunch al fresco with lots of local, juicy, dark Sagrantino di Montefalco wine.
Umbria is Italy's only landlocked region that doesn't share a border with another country. Its name echoes ombra, the Italian word for "shadow" -- and it seems to have always been in the shadow of its better-known neighbors, like Tuscany and Lazio. But the region has so much going for it, including the beautiful topography and a history as rich as its cuisine. One of its famous local foods is the Umbrian lentil, which is tawny brown and roughly the size of the tiny green French Puy lentil. Umbrian lentils are often featured in local dishes, and are a great foil for the rich game featured so prominently in this region.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention another great Umbrian contribution to Italian cuisine, which is the concept of the norcineria. There's no direct translation for the word, but it's basically a 'meat emporium,' including and especially pork products, fresh and cured. Norcia is a town in the province of Perugia in Southeast Umbria, nestled between Spoleto and Ascoli Piceno (in the Le Marche region).
The town is famous for its meat emporiums, and so this kind of shop all over central Italy has taken on the moniker norcineria. I did once make it to "ground zero" in Norcia on a trip to my ex's childhood home near Ascoli Piceno, and we picked up some delicious pancetta and a few other items to cook for dinner at his mother's house. But the important thing is not procuring these meats in Norcia itself, but rather the significance of the quality norcineria, wherever you may find one. I often went to the Norcineria Viola in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, as it was close to home and they had a great selection, offered up assaggi (samples), and the owners were a hoot.
If you're lucky enough to be cooking the following recipe in Italy, a norcineria would be the prime spot to pick up some delicious, house-made sausages. And if you don't have a go-to 'meat emporium' -- well, a butcher (preferably Italian) or Italian specialty store would be second-best. But anywhere you trust the sausage makers qualifies; the quality is key. And a tip: generally speaking, though Tuscany is the next region over, this dish does not use Tuscan-style sausages, which contain fennel seed. Try and use sausages without that anise flavor...if you're sticking to tradition, that is.
LENTICCHIE E SALSICCIA
4 TBS. olive oil
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, chopped into small dice (1/8 inch)
1 celery stalk, chopped into small dice
2 cloves garlic
3 cups Umbrian lentils (or Puy lentils), washed and sorted through to clean
2 sprigs rosemary
8 Italian sausage links, sliced in half lengthwise
1/3 cup hearty Italian red wine, Sagrantino if possible
1/2 cup water
Flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Salt + pepper to taste
For the lentils:
- Warm the oil over medium heat in a wide saucepan with some depth (and one with a fitted lid). Add the garlic cloves and infuse the olive oil for a minute or so.
- Add the chopped carrots, celery, and onion, and cook to soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and cook another minute.
- Add the lentils, stir well, and cover with cold water until submerged and with a bit of water above the lentils. Bring to a boil, add a couple of small sprigs of rosemary, and cover. Turn down the heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.
*Lentils can be cooked in advance to this point*
- When the lentils are almost ready, or you're reheating them, heat a grill pan or a frying pan over medium-high heat, and add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. - Brown the sausages on both sides, making sure not to crowd the pan (we want them seared, not steamed).
- When sausages are fully browned, toss in the red wine and the water and let the liquid cook down and bubble up for a few minutes. Then cover, an cook for another 10 minutes or so.
- Plate the warm lentils on a serving platter, and then place the sausages on top of the bed of lentils. You can either use the wine gravy as is, or add a spoonful of a dijon mustard and whisk that into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour the sauce over the sausages and lentils, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.