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 lasagna di carnevale. Angelina’s pasta e lenticche (pasta and lentils) was very simple to make but involved three more or less simultaneous operations.
- 250g (8 oz) lentils, soaked overnight
- 250g (8 oz) linguini, broken into short lengths or other pasta (see Notes)
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 1-2 cloves garlic
- Olive oil
First, you simmer the lentils in enough water to cover them by at least an inch, along with a clove or two of 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.
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.)
Notes on Pasta and Lentils
Typically, Angelina would break up linguine into short lengths for her Pasta and Lentils, 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 risoni (usually called ‘orzo’ in the US) or stellette.
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.
There are all manner of possible variations on this basic recipe for Pasta and Lentils. 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 on Pasta and Lentils 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.