When I first moved to Italy a friend of mine said ‘well of course you must get yourself a pasta pot’ which has an inner sieve with handles, ostensibly to make draining easier (it doesn’t). While tracking one down I came across a soapstone casserole and bought that instead. These are hewn from solid rock, nothing new-fangled like composite stone; they are not only extremely heavy they are fragile too.
I realised it was going to be a bum purchase as I staggered out the shop and then couldn’t figure out how to get it in the car without doing my back in. It got worse: it came the instructions which involved oiling the dish and then baking it full of water for about 6 hours, twice. Gas is amazingly expensive here in Italy and I got mean about the whole thing. It gathered dust for the next 2 years. Eventually I stopped punishing it and got it prepped, and then another 2 years passed.
But last Saturday I visited Colfiorito, a small, unexpected plateau in the Sibillini Mountains, just inside Umbria. It is famous for its red potatoes, something I found out only afterwards, otherwise I’d have bought some. No, I was myopically hunting down lentils, Colfiorito being less well known than Castelluccio as an Umbrian lentil growing region. Dotted along the road are lorries selling chick peas, lentils, onions and potatoes. All very charming and miles more expensive than the local supermarket; still, it was an adventure on a glorious autumn day.
Back home, I felt I ought to pay homage to these pricey little pulses and while I was musing, I spotted the soapstone casserole doing duty as a stand for my African woven grass food covers. Ahah!
The time had come: I went into Sumo wrestler mode and heaved it onto the stove. I sautéed onion, garlic, celery and a fennel bulb – but not in the casserole, as one isn’t allowed to put it onto direct heat – added these veg along with 250g of lentils, a slug of cheap Greek brandy, 2 bay leaves and 6 chopped up sundried tomatoes. I added enough water to cover the mixture by a centimetre depth. Then the dish was shoved into a cold oven (it has to warm up slowly) and baked at 180C for 90 minutes. By which time the water had been absorbed and the lentils cooked.
I tell you what: soapstone casseroles may be a major hassle to cook with, but they are great flavour trappers. It bought home to me how the material of the pan one uses affects what food tastes like.
Colfiorito lentils have terrific flavour and texture and I’ll definitely cook with them again. Will I use the soapstone casserole again? Er .. yes – probably.