Maybe you’ve had enough plain old lettuce and tomato salad by this time of year and you’re ready for something a little different. This salad of lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, tossed with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and other ingredients will awaken your taste buds and keep you healthy too since lentils are high in fiber and a good source of protein and minerals.
Lentils from Santo Stefano are just about the finest you’ll find anywhere. They’re known for their small size, earthy flavor and tender outer husk. Because of their tiny size and extremely thin outer coating, they don’t need any special soaking and have a shorter cooking time.
They grow on land that’s within Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso National Park, at altitudes that can reach as high as 1600 meters (higher than 5,000 feet.) The cultivation of lentils in this area has been documented by monks as far back as the year 998 A.D.
Santo Stefano provides the ideal climate for growing lentils – cold, long winters and a short, brisk springtime. Lentils love the predominantly limestone soil of the area and don’t need any fertilization so they’re ideally suited for the poor terrain of the mountains. They’re harvested between the end of July and the end of August and the town holds a festival the first weekend of September to celebrate the legume. It can take as long as 15 days to bring in the harvest, which is almost always done manually. That’s mainly because the lentils, which must be separated from their pods, are so tiny, and there’s a loss of 30 percent to 40 percent with mechanical harvesting. But it’s also difficult to get equipment into some of the growing areas. The photo below shows the lentils just released from their dried pod.
Most of the lentil growers in Santo Stefano are older retired people who cultivate them strictly for family use. That means each year fewer and fewer are available commercially, and they’re impossible to find in the U.S. Even in Italy, they’re not readily available outside of Abruzzo. To help stem the sale of lentils falsely claiming to be from Santo Stefano, the local Slow Food organization, or presidium, requires identification of the grower to be on the label. Below is a photo of Silvan Fulgensi, among the younger growers, and a member of the presidium, shown holding a sifter used to shake the lentils from their outer pods. Silvan and his wife Anna were just putting the finishing touches on a new bar in town called Il Ristoro Degli Elfi, so if you do visit Santo Stefano, stop in, have a drink and a bite to eat.
Since you’ll be hard pressed to find lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio (unless you’re going to be in Abruzzo), try using Puy lentils from France, found at most gourmet food stores, as a substitute in the recipe below.
1 cup lentils – preferably from Santo Stefano di Sessanio
water to cover
1 bay leaf
Place the lentils and the bay leaf in a pot and cover with water to an inch above the lentils. Bring the water to a boil and simmer in a covered pot, for 20 minutes. Drain, remove the bay leaf and let cool to room temperature, then add the other ingredients.
1/2 cup canned artichoke hearts, cut up into small pieces
1/2 cup roasted red peppers, diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup jarred green pepperoncini, minced
1/4 cup minced parsley
salt, pepper to taste
Add the above ingredients to the lentils and mix with the dressing. Serve over a bed of lettuce and garnish with tomatoes.