I love lentils. My favorite pasta when I was growing up was the pasta e lenticchie (Pasta and Lentils) Angelina made. Rice goes as well with lentils as pasta does, and it’s even easier to make. A one-pot dish that makes a perfect first course before a wintery stew or roast, Rice and Lentils is hearty enough to serve as a weeknight dinner on its own. And it’s a great way to use up those leftover lentils from New Year’s Eve.
- 250g (8 oz) dried lentils, soaked overnight (see Notes)
- 250g (8 oz) rice (see Notes)
- 75g (3 oz) pancetta, diced
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2-3 canned tomatoes, chopped or simply crushed in your hand (optional)
- A small sprig of fresh rosemary (optional)
- Lard or olive oil
- Broth or water, q.b.
- Best-quality olive oil
- Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
- Freshly grated black pepper
Start by making a soffritto: Sauté the pancetta in the lard or olive oil until it has rendered much of its fat and is just beginning to crisp. Add the onion and continue until the onion is soft and translucent, taking care not to brown it at all. Then add the garlic, give the soffritto a turn. If using tomatoes, add them now, and let them simmer until they melt into a little sauce.
As soon as the garlic begins to give off its aroma, add the pre-soaked lentils, which you will have rinsed under cold water and drained very well. Mix the lentils and soffritto well, and let the lentils simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavors.
[NB: Many recipes have you simmer the lentils separately before adding them to the soffritto, but here I’ve opted for the one-pot approach. I haven’t seen that it makes much difference to the end result.]
Then add enough water or broth to cover the lentils by about 3 cm/1 inch. Cover and simmer the lentils over low heat for about 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are just about tender, stirring from time to time and checking to make sure they haven’t dried out. (Add more water or broth if needed.)
Add the rice and a couple more ladlefuls of water or broth to the pot. Give it a stir and cover again, let the rice simmer until tender, about 10-20 minutes depending on the variety. Once again, stir from time to time and check to make sure things aren’t drying out. Rice, like lentils, absorbs quite a bit of liquid. Adjust the amount of liquid to suit your tastes—the dish can be quite brothy if you like, but is usually served thick, more stew than soup.
Serve your Rice and Lentils hot, with one or more of the suggested toppings if those who like them.
Notes on Rice and Lentils
If making this dish with leftover lentils, you can simply add them to the soffritto and cook for a minute or two to meld flavors before adding the rice. Indeed, many (if not most) recipes for Rice and Lentils call for cooking the lentils separately and then adding them to the soffritto; I’ve opted here for the one-pot method. If the lentils are already savory, you can even skip the soffritto altogether and just warm them up and add the rice to cook until done.
In Italy, the lentils from Castelluccio in Umbria are famous and if you can find them, would be marvelous in this soup. I also very much like French lentils, which are much easier to find. Both of these varieties are particularly prized because unlike most lentils they retain their shape even when they are perfectly tender. But Rice and Lentils being a soup/soupy pasta dish, you can really use any old lentils you want, including the usual brown lentils that tend to disintegrate when you cook them. Not all lentils need to be soaked—Castelluccio lentils are one well known example—but for most varieties I find it helps both shorten cooking times and prevent disintegration.
The rice for your Rice and Lentils could be one fit for risotto, but, to my taste, a longer grain rice would be better. In fact, you can use or just about any variety of rice you like, although I would avoid a very delicate rice like basmati, which would likely turn mushy in a dish like this one. Rice and Lentils is not a bad way to use leftover rice, either, by the way, assuming it’s plain boiled rice, like the kind you get from Chinese take-out. (There are other, better, uses for leftover risotto, on the other hand, which I hope to blog about in the near future.) Just add the rice to the cooked lentils, mix well and let simmer for just long enough to heat the rice through. Serve immediately.
As mentioned, Rice and Lentils is equally nice made with or without tomato according to your mood. The soffritto can vary, too, according to your taste; many recipes (perhaps most) call for celery as well as onion, and you could go for the typical ‘holy trinity’ of onion, celery and carrot. Being a lentil maven myself, most of the time, I want the pure taste of lentils to come through and omit the tomato and keep the soffritto simple. The measurements are equally variable; use more or less lentils or rice as suits your taste. Personally, I like a 1:1 ratio of lentils to rice, but many recipes call for a bit less rice than lentils by weight. You can turn this dish vegetarian by omitting the pancetta and using olive oil instead of lard; you can make it vegan by omitting the cheese topping.