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It’s Hard to Process My Grief, So I Make Lentils

published Apr 24, 2020
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A while back, I read a book called From Scratch by Tembi Locke and was crying within 10 minutes of picking it up. This memoir is about love, grieving, and adapting. Locke includes many vivid food images throughout the book, but always comes back to a bowl of ditalini and lentils that her Sicilian mother-in-law regularly makes for her during times of grief. Upon arrival in Sicily, this comforting medley of tiny pasta and nourishing lentils is there for her and her daughter to consume after their long journey.

Like Locke, I am a lover of lentils and ditalini and keep these ingredients stocked in my pantry. I regularly cook up batches of either to keep in the fridge so we can graze on them throughout the week. Every time the dish was mentioned in From Scratch, I felt comforted and would file it under the “things I needed to make soon” list.

In the days after coronavirus started hitting New York City, I was in a state. Trying to navigate a brand-new job, organizing a newly homebound family, and observing a complete breakdown of businesses during inescapable pandemic was a lot. Putting food on the table was difficult. I was grieving. I could hardly manage to make myself lunch, much less meal plan for my family. I was able to make chicken stock and cook up some basics to have around for the week: a pot of French green lentils (cooked with shallot, garlic, and bay leaf), a cup of grains, and half a box of leftover ditalini. 

It was then that I remembered the book and the dish that Tembi finds herself coming back to. I decided to cobble together the version in my mind with the things I had prepared. I defrosted some chicken Parmesan stock that I had stored in my freezer (any stock will do, though). I removed the aromatics from my lentils and grabbed the already-cooked ditalini. Then I moved on to prepping the vegetables. There is something about finely dicing vegetables that I find very therapeutic — I think it’s leftover from my days of fine dining. Maybe I do it for all the times a chef threw away my knife cuts; maybe it’s the illusion that I have control over one thing.

I brunoise one carrot, one stalk of celery, and half a small shallot. If I had fennel I probably would have added that too.

The ditalini and lentil dish I made up in my mind is very different from the traditional Sicilian dish version. From my understanding, the Sicilian dish has all the ingredients in the same pot — the lentils break down and the pasta water creates a creamier, thicker stew. But the idea of a heavy dish was unappealing. I needed something light and gentle, but also comforting and nourishing to my system. 

I placed the stock in a saucepan, brought it to a boil then to a simmer, and seasoned it with salt. I added the vegetables, brought the pot back to a simmer and then removed it from the heat. (The vegetables cook quickly because they are cut so fine. I didn’t want them to be mushy.) I divided the cooked lentils and pasta into four bowls, poured the hot stock over, and then shaved Parmesan cheese over the top.

My family sat around the table at lunch and we quietly scooped the broth and perfectly al dente lentils and pasta into our mouths. It felt like spring encroaching on winter. Smiles appeared on the faces around me — I could tell they needed this too. It wasn’t the exact dish from the book, but it brought us comfort in our grief all the same.

Try a similar recipe : Pasta and Lentils from The Washington Post

This story is part of our Staying Home series, in which Kitchn editors and contributors share the recipes, tools, and habits that are helping them through the pandemic. As we work to flatten the curve, we’re cooking more, shopping less frequently, and looking for the good and the bright as much as we can. In this very disorienting time, here’s what’s keeping us going.