You cannot read Colette Rossant’s Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes without envying the stunning array of Egyptian and French food – from simple street food to elaborate wedding-day specialties – that she enjoyed as a child. Nor can you help admiring Rossant’s vivid memories of how these favorite dishes wove themselves in and out of her daily life. You also can’t avoid pondering what recipes might form the culinary unpinning of your own memoir.
Today, as I prepared Soeur Leila’s Red Lentil Stew – one of the book’s 43 recipes – I reflected on just this question: what recipes might help me tell the story of my childhood? Surely, this was too big a question to fully answer on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even so, a rush of scents and flavors and recollections flooded into my head. In fact, I’m lucky Rossant’s lentil stew recipe is so effortless – anything more complicated would have been too much for my distracted brain to handle.
So what recipes did I think of? To describe an everyday weeknight in my home, the memoir would have to include pepperoni pie – a dense quiche studded with spicy nibs of pepperoni. I don’t eat meat anymore, but if you put a slice of this beloved childhood dish in front of me, I’d find it hard to resist. Another weeknight favorite was a salad made solely from lightly-dressed chicory – a frilly, bitter-tasting green that, I suspect, no other sibling team in history has loved as much. Armed with think slabs of Italian bread, my brother and I would dive right in, elbowing each other over who got to soak up the leftover vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl. (My dad calls soaking up sauce or dressing with bread “mojuring” – I have no idea if this is an English word, and Italian word, or a made-up word. But that is the word we use.). And, of course, I’d feature my grandmother’s molasses cookies, mature versions of the brown sugar spoonfuls she gave me when I had the hiccups, and tell the story of how, later in her life, her cookies tasted different every time depending on which ingredient she had forgotten to add.
Growing up, I remember contributing to the preparation of many dishes, although my parents might have different perspective on whether I was helping or hindering their efforts. On long weekends, my dad would labor over Italian specialties passed down through his ancestors’ kitchens. Lasagna made with a layer of sliced braciole was a favorite, and it was my job to help him tie strings around the rolls of breaded meat. When my mom prepared her meatloaf, she would beckon me from my homework spot at the dining room table so that I could squish the ingredients together with my hands. I also liked to make an appearance during the most exciting part of chicken cutlet preparation – the assembly line production of dipping each piece of meat in egg, then breadcrumbs.
Other food memories are inexorably linked to holidays. When I was in school, the weeks approaching Christmastime were a time for accumulating huge quantities of candy canes from friends and teachers. Taking advantage of this bounty, my family and I would crush the canes and make peppermint stick ice cream. And, to this day, Christmas parties feature my mom’s minestrone soup, a dish that, amazingly, she has never tasted because she doesn’t like beans, but which has gained acclaim from even the most vociferous vegetable-haters. If my mom doesn’t make minestrone soup at Christmastime, she risks an insurrection.
Another soup recipe would also have to make the memoir – pasta fagiole. I love this soup so much that, during my sophomore year in college, my parents made the valiant (and slightly nutty) attempt to send me a few servings in a care package. At my university (and, I would assume, all universities), whenever care packages arrived, you would accumulate an ever-growing troop of observers (a.k.a. aspiring package-sharers) as you carried your box from the post office, into your dorm, and up to your room. How disappointed my bystanders were to discover that my package contained no candy, no cookies – only spoiled soup that had leaked out of its Tupperware container.
Although my food memories are quite different from Rossant’s, they, too, are blessed with the warming combination of family, celebrations and the daily bread of everyday life. The red lentil stew recipe Rossant shares is a hearty, wholesome dish she was served on Fridays at her convent school. Like many a favorite childhood food, it is, she says, a recipe she continues to make today.
Soeur Leila’s Red Lentil Stew
Slightly adapted from Apricots on the Nile
Serves 4 as a main course
500 milliliters / 2 cups split red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 liter/ 4 cups vegetable broth
2 large onions, chopped (divided)
1 large tomato, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 small zucchini, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
150 grams / 1/3 pound angel hair or vermicelli pasta, broken into small pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons olive oil
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Place the lentils, broth, 1 onion, tomato, carrot and zucchini in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that bubbles up. Then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Purée the mixture using a hand blender. Stir in the ground cumin, pasta, salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add additional vegetable broth if you would like a slightly thinner stew.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small fry pan over medium heat. Add the remaining one onion and sauté for 8-10 minutes, or until golden. Add the onion and any remaining drops of oil to the lentils and simmer for five minutes. Serve in bowls with a sprinkling of parsley. Rossant recommends garnishing with croutons made from pita bread.