Nan is 98 years old now and lives in the Alzheimer’s unit at Scalabrini nursing home in Rhode Island. She doesn’t remember much any more. She doesn’t remember me. She usually forgets my mother, who visits her every day. When I saw Nan last month for Christmas, I tried to prompt her. “Nan, remember me? Your granddaughter? Susan?” Nothing.
On the last day that Jeff and I lived in Rhode Island before moving to North Carolina, we slept over Nan's house, with a full U-haul truck parked in the driveway. When we awoke, it was raining as hard as I can ever remember. It was January 1997. My grandmother, a notorious late sleeper, got up at 4:00 am that bitter cold morning and made us breakfast. We woke to the warm, sweet smell of waffles from her vintage waffle iron and to the gurgling sound of her electric coffee percolator. They were the best tasting waffles I had ever had and have had since that day.
I provoked her again: “Remember me Nan? I’m your granddaughter, Susan. I’m married to Jeff" (she loves Jeff). Still nothing. “Remember when you made us waffles?” “Waffles?” she answered. “Yeah, that rainy morning.” Her eyes lit up. “Oooh, yeah,” she said. “I made you waffles.” Tears were welling up in my eyes. “Waffles and coffee, huh?” she added. “Yeah, Nan, waffles and coffee,” I repeated. “I was a good cook, huh?” she asked me. Tears were just flowing now. “Yeah Nan, you were a good cook.”
I made Nan's lentil soup last night because we were missing her, our families, and Rhode Island. Whenever we feel this way, we try to make some type of Italian comfort food that our mothers and grandmothers used to make for us. Somehow, it always transports us, albeit briefly, back home.
I don’t know if this recipe is exactly like Nan’s, but she probably wouldn’t either. That’s because she never used a recipe. Ever. I have inherited that from her; I often don’t measure, and I rarely follow a recipe exactly (which is why you never want to come over my house for souffle).
Nan's Italian Lentil Soup
Makes 4 servings.
Print recipe only here.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 cup lentils, brown or black*
2 bay leaves
4-5 cups water (depending on your desired soupiness)
1 8-oz can tomato sauce or diced tomatoes with juice
A good shake of red pepper flakes
Salt, to taste
About 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh basil
About 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh parsley
Some good Reggiano-Parmigiano and quality extra virgin olive oil
Remove the pan from the heat. And remove the bay leaves before serving! Add the fresh herbs now so they will retain their bright green color and fresh flavor. Top with lots of good grated cheese, and drizzle some quality extra virgin olive oil on top.
*TIP: I love Trader Joe’s black lentils. They have an earthier flavor and don’t break down as easily as brown lentils. They also create a thicker soup perfect for clinging to a nice piece of crusty Italian bread. Mmm.
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