serves: 8 servings
Legumes are a specialty of growers in L'Aquila, the big inland province of Abruzzo, and the pride of the region is the small, tender lentils grown in the mountain village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Since my recent visit to this remote, rugged settlement, I have had no doubt that it was in just such a place that this hearty and warming winter soup, thick with lentils and chestnuts, was created. These native foods, so good together, can surely sustain one through long cold winters in the high country. Unfortunately, the delicious lenticchie of Santo Stefano di Sessanio are a limited commodity and not available here. Instead, I recommend using lentils from Castelluccio in Umbria in this soup. Ordinary lentils are fine as well, though some larger types may need soaking or longer cooking time. Chestnuts, grown along the length of the Apennines, are also essential to Abruzzese cuisine. In season, they're enjoyed in everything from pastas to desserts, and then, like lentils, dried for winter cooking or milled into flour. Though this soup can be made with fresh (or frozen) chestnuts, I use dried chestnuts, as is often the case in Abruzzo. These are available year-round and spare you the work of peeling. I also like the way they cook slowly without disintegrating, giving the soup a particularly nice texture. They do require an overnight soak, however, before you start cooking.
½ pound dried chesnuts
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 plump garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh marjoram
2 bay leaves
1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand
4 quart water
8 large fresh basil leaves
1 pound lentils
2 tablespoons kosher salt
freshly grated pecorino
For this soup you will need a heavy-bottomed soup pot or saucepan, 6-quart capacity or larger. Rinse the dried chestnuts, and put them in a bowl with cold water to cover by at least 4 inches. Let soak in a cool place for 8 hours or overnight, and drain them when you start cooking the soup.
Pour the olive oil into the soup pot, set over medium-high heat, and drop in the crushed garlic cloves. Cook for a couple of minutes, until they're sizzling and lightly colored, then drop in the herb sprigs and bay leaves, and cook for a minute. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, bring the juices to a boil, and cook for a minute or two, to concentrate the flavors.
Pour in the water, stir well, add the basil leaves and drained chestnuts, and cover the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then set the cover ajar and cook at a gentle boil, reducing gradually, until the chestnuts have softened and have started to crumble, about 1 1/2 hours.
Rinse the lentils, and stir them into the soup along with the salt. Return to a full boil, and cook, cover ajar, for 30 minutes or more, until the lentils are tender (timing depends on lentil size and variety) and the broth is flavorful.
Ladle the soup into warm bowls. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated cheese over each portion, and finish with a swirl of excellent olive oil. Serve right away, with more grated cheese at the table.