I am only too aware that people are often in a hurry when it comes to surfing the net for recipes, so I would like to warn the reader that he or she can safely skip all the preceding paragraphs below until they get to “Ingredients”. On the other hand, I would also like to recommend this recipe: I think it can be a crowd pleaser on account of its ingredients, its ease of preparation, its relative lack of expense, and most of all on account of the flavour it delivers.
What do you do when your friend of fifteen years tells you that her job requirement now stipulates she be posted to Samoa for a couple of years? You burst into tears, that’s what.
I had to look up its exact location on a map but I knew of course even without precision that it was far away, far far away from Italy. Sigh. Another friend leaving, yet another.
As I wrote in my previous post, Frascati has been home to me ever since I was a child of under two, even though from age five onwards I lived overseas on account of my stepfather’s job. That meant changing schools: my first in Karachi-Pakistan, second in Teheran-Iran, third in Frascati (albeit for only a couple of months), fourth in Dhaka-Bangladesh (which when I was there was Dacca-East Pakistan) and fifth and final was boarding school in England for an uninterrupted six years.
Growing up abroad provides many enriching experiences and nurtures countless cultural advantages but it also poses one huge disadvantage: you make friends and then either they or you have to ‘leave’ – leave the country. It’s a funny feeling, that one of being ‘left behind’, it is steeped with melancholy. And though exciting at some level, being the new person on the block comes with pitfall baggage and requires not a little amount of courage. Looking on the positive side, I suppose that all of this also teaches one the art of making friendships ‘easily’, of not beating about the bush, and hones one’s radar as to who to reach out to and who, well, it sounds awful but you know what I mean, who to avoid. Sometimes one can’t ‘avoid’, however … and thereby context and necessity can end up being the parents of close acquaintance.
I met Alison at another friend’s house, over dinner. Alison’s son and my daughter were in the same class at school and had just hit their teens. A single mother, she was working for the United Nations in Rome, and I too had worked there. I took a liking to her straight away, her verve, her sense of humour, her beautiful turn of phrase, her sense of naughtiness, her love of singing and the theatre, her sense of adventure. It was a delight to discover that she too liked the English magazine “Tatler” although neither of us were to the manner born (no way!). I liked how she liked to make light of situations and sticky patches. The daughter of a New Zealand ambassador, she had grown up living abroad all her life but she eschewed any middle-class trappings such an upbringing might have engendered in her outlook. Entitlement and Alison do not fit in the same phrase and, if anything, she scrunched her nose at even the slightest attitude that smacked of bourgeois bearing. O Tempora, o Mora! and all that; times and mores do indeed change so who knows what “middle class” and “bourgeois” actually really mean any more but there is no getting away from the fact that most of the friends I have made as an adult here in Rome and Frascati are, well, middle class-ish in many respects, only with an international, expat twist. It has been either the workplace or our children’s school(s) that have brought us together and what we share, the ‘glue’ of our relationship, is a love of family, of children, of friends and of education. (I would add pets too … even though I haven’t had a pet in my house since I was a child). Religion, when it does enter the circle of my friendships, has never caused any nuisance – we come in all sizes of world and religious views. We are all pretty “vocal’, we like a good gossip, we definitely have firm and even clashing views on occasion – but it all comes out right in the wash in the end. Does that make us goody goodies? Are we so easy to “épater” ? If you prick us, do we not bleed, tee hee …
Well, whatever social demographic we fit into, all I can say is that we have had plenty of lunches and dinners together, so food must also have played its part. Just days before leaving for Samoa, Alison gave me some food stuffs from the pantry she was vacating that she knew I would appreciate, including some black lentils from the north of Lazio, a region called Tuscia.
I had never heard of black lentils before; black chickpeas (garbanzo) yes, they are called ‘ceci neri’ down in Basilicata and Puglia (here is Gareth Jones on the ceci neri: http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=10342). By a huge twist of fate, Alison’s departure for Samoa coincided with a visit from three other great friends in common: Debra, who now lives in Hong Kong, Libby from New Hampshire, and Sandy from Vancouver (friends Susy, Liz and I are now the only ones left living in the Frascati area) . We were able to organize a bon-voyage-good-luck supper for Alison:
Here she is, a little tired after a long day, and with her beautiful dog Lucy at her feet.
But last minute work and preparations meant that she could not join us for a gals get-together weekend on the Amalfi Coast. We missed you Alison!!!
And we also missed common friend Charlotte from Denmark too, who was to arrive the following week, just in time for a big birthday of mine.
A few days later, I was having some neighbours over for a fish and seafood-themed dinner and looked at those black lentils Alison had given me and came up with an idea. I ‘borrowed’ a seafood salad recipe idea from Liz, I made use of the frozen fish stock that Sandy had made in the course of a dinner down on the Amalfi Coast, and made up the rest myself in honour of Alison. From now, this is going to be called the Alison Lentil and Scampi Salad. I expect you can get great seafood in Apia, Samoa, Alison? If you can get hold of some ordinary lentils, not even black ones, have a go at making this recipe, I’m sure you’d really enjoy it. And melted butter in lieu of olive oil, if it’s hard to get there. May your God go with you, Alison, as Dave Allen used to say.
ALISON’S LENTIL AND SCAMPI SALAD
Scampi, fish stock preferbly made from scampi shells and/or water if fish stock is unavailable, lentils, celery, red onion, olive oil, lemon juice, ice, salt and pepper.
This was the fish stock Sandy made in Maiori. I very wisely froze it and wasn’t going to waste it and took it back to Frascati with me. Good fish stock is something to be hallowed.
Cut up an onion into bite-size pieces, and chop celery sticks likewise. Place them all in a bowl full of cold water and ice. This will make everything nice and crispy and will take the edge off the onion. I happened to have a red onion called ‘cipolla di Tropea’, which is very very sweet. Set aside.
I didn’t know whether these black lentils were going to be too toothsome, so I decided to let them soak in plenty of water for an hour. Normally, lentils don’t need to be soaked but I didn’t want to risk it.
Then drain the lentils. Dribble a good amount of olive oil (by olive oil I mean the best evoo you can muster) into your pan. I opted for an earthenware cooking pan, because they are just super duper for low-heat slow cooking.
Once the lentils are in, use your hands to make sure they all get coated with the olive oil.
Then pour in enough of the fish stock to cover the lentils plus another two inches. Reserve some fish stock to cook the scampi too.
Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat. After a while, some unsightly scum will rise to the surface. Get rid of it as best you can, a slotted spoon works pretty well.
Taste the lentils after about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them. It turns out that they were just right after 40 minutes cooking time. Remove from heat.
Clean out the pan, dry it. Add plenty more evoo and lots of lemon juice and pinches of salt.
Put the still-warm lentils into the pot … and stir away so that they get coated in the olive oil and lemon dressing. Taste, and add more lemon juice or salt as required. A twist of white pepper might be a good idea too. Set aside to cool.
And now we can get on with scampi work.
Use some of the fish stock to cook the scampi too. Bring the stock to a boil, add a pinch of salt, and then put the scampi in to simmer. They should go from the grey-ish colour above:
To this pearly white colour in just about two minutes. Drain straight away.
Allow to cool. Once cooled, dribble a tiny amount of olive oil over them. This recipe is all about ‘coating’ with olive oil. If you can’t get olive oil, by all means use melted butter.
Drain the onion and celery and add the scampi to the pretty picture.
Then make the salad by combining all the ingredients, using your hands, very gently.
Do you like the glisten? that’s the olive oil.
Ready to serve, at room temperature – or even cold if you are somewhere hot.
It was really very very good. Tasty without being over the top. I’ve got a thing about pomegranate at the moment. Can you imagine how pretty this would look with red jewels of pomegranate in it too?