Of all the wonderful dishes my grandmother Angelina would make when I was growing up, this was my very favorite. And that’s saying a lot, since she made incredible lasagne di carnevale.
Angelina’s pasta e lenticche (pasta and lentils) was very simple to make but involved three more or less simultaneous operations: First, you simmer lentils with garlic and a drop of olive oil until tender, then season well. Second, while the lentils are simmering, you saute lots of sliced onions in olive oil. Season these, too. Third, when your lentils and onions are almost done, you cook the pasta. Typically, Angelina would break up linguine into short lengths, and for me, this dish is never quite right with any other kind of pasta. But, of course, you can use all sorts of small, stubby pastas like ditali or even a tiny soup pasta like orzo or stellette. When the pasta is slightly undercooked, add it to the pot with the lentils, then add the sauteed onions along with a good ladleful of the pasta cooking water. Mix well, adjust for seasoning, and let it ‘rest’, covered, for at least an hour to let the favors develop. In fact, it tastes even better when you make it in the morning for an evening meal, or the day before. (Yes, you heard that right: this recipes breaks all the usual rules for making pasta.)
Measurements: Nana never measured, and, anyway, the proportions for this dish are to taste, but I find that using the same weight (uncooked) of lentils and pasta provides the right balance for me. I like to make a fair amount at a time, and 250g of each is enough for at least 6 portions. For that amount, one medium onion is fine. Add more if you like, but I find that adding too much onion gives the dish a sweetness that is not genuino.
The only tricky part to this dish, besides getting the lentil-to-pasta ratio to your taste, is to season each component (lentils, pasta, onions) well, as they all need salt to ‘shine’. But be careful not to overdo it; the seasoning in each component somehow comes out stronger when they are combined.
Variations: The other day I had some stuff in the fridge that I needed to use, and felt like a more elaborate version of this dish. So I simmered the lentils with a sprig of fresh bay leaves and a chunk of ‘country ham’ (pancetta or guanciale would also do nicely) for extra depth of flavor. (When it was cooked, I boned and diced the ham and added it to the pasta.) And I added a bit of crushed tomato to the sauteed onions. The result was not a ‘pure’ as Angelina’s original version, but awfully good.
This variation is actually quite close to the pasta e lenticchie you could sometimes find on the menu at family-run trattorie in Rome. There, the dish is more of a soup, and the pasta something like tubetti. Pancetta and tomato are usually included in the flavoring base. The soup is served with grated cheese, something that we never had with Angelina’s version.