An ancient island, it was first inhabited by the Phoenicians. It’s older than the Aeolian islands and is actually the rocky top of a an undersea volcano. Ustica means dark rock~ therefore called the black pearl of the Mediterranean. Today it stands protected as a marine reserve.
I walked the 2 mile radius of the interior through fields of wildflowers. Typical of the Med, I came upon wild figs, wild capers, wild prickly pears, yet cultivated almond groves and bean fields. Islands are usually known more for their fish and this is surely the case here. I rode around in a ‘gomone’, (a raft with a motor) in the surrounding sea. I saw medusa’s in a natural pool in the rocks that I almost jumped into. The water was inviting, crystal clear and fresh. Exactly what the jellyfish thought as well. Their presence means as much. Exhilarating would have been an understatement had I showed up a minute before. Here on the island, lentils are served with fish. Not a usual combination. Yet, from the point of view of local; what grows together, goes together.
Everything about this small, isolated island was rich and concentrated, worn by eons of wind, sun and saltwater. if you ask me, the real ‘black pearl of the Mediterranean’ is not the island itself, but it’s native daughter, La lenticchia nera..
I am a great fan of the ‘one dish meal’. Here is another version. I love these lentils as they take no time to cook. Soaking is unnecessary. They provide meaty nourishment and are known for aiding digestive healing. The bitterness of sauteed chickory adds a juicy, yet earthy element that goes well with the beans. I have used an egg to accompany as it fits the composition of the dish, adds protein and color, not to mention a rich sauce. For the seafood version, I recommend a swift trip to the hinterland, just a two and half hour ferry ride from Palermo.
Lenticchie Nere con Cicoria e un Ouvo Bello Bollito
2 cups lentils
1 head of garlic, cooked whole in the broth
1 sprig of fresh sage
1 t of ground cumin
1 tiny dried red pepper
a drizzle of olive oil
salt to taste, once lentils are almost cooked
1 fresh chicory, (like a head of napa cabbage) cleaned and chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped fine
salt to taste
4 eggs, soft boiled for 3 minutes
salt, pepper, to taste
Choose a heavy bottomed pot or terracotta. Cook your lentils in plenty of fresh water. Bring to a boil, then down to a simmer.
Add a whole garlic head, cleaned of any loose skin. The garlic slowly infuses the broth and flavors the beans. Add sage, pepperoncino, cumin, a drizzle of olive oil and simmer about 1/2 hour or so, until the beans are 90% cooked. Beans double in size, so check for liquid so the beans don’t burn. Bean broth or ‘pot liquor’ is also delicious to keep if you choose to make a soup. Add salt- at least 1/4 t for each cup for digestion-then to one’s taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes, then turn off heat.
Clean and chop chicory and saute in e.v. olive oil and one clove of chopped garlic. Add pinch of salt to flavor. Cook until tender, but green color remains vibrant and not gray.
Put 4 whole eggs in the shell in a small pot covered with water. Bring to a boil. Set aside and let sit for 15 minutes.
Assemble on one plate:
A bed of Ustican black lentils
a scoop of chickory on top
a peeled soft boiled egg, cut in half and presented on top of the dish.
Add a fresh pinch of cumin, salt a dash of freshly cracked pepper
and …a drizzle of ex..v..olive oil.
Enjoy the taste of treasured ancient tastes!