Legumes are a natural partner of pasta. This is technically a soup, but you can make it as dense as you like. Here, the lentils are spiced up with only tomato purée assisted by a little onion, garlic, chile, and a bay leaf. You’ll realize you never appreciated the true flavor of lentils before.
From "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way" by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant (W. W. Norton, 2013), p. 249. —Maureen Fant
4 to 6
For the soup:
brown lentils (preferably tiny and Italian), picked over and rinsed well
at least 1 1/2 teaspoons
extra-virgin olive oil
white onion, finely chopped
cloves garlic, chopped
small piece dried chile
pasta, preferably noodle-shaped, maltagliati, or sagnette
best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
Put the lentils in a 4-quart (4-liter) pot, preferably terra cotta, with 6 cups (1 1/2 liters) water and the bay leaf. Add 1 level teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, then cook, covered, over low heat until tender. The cooking time can range from 20 minutes (for the best-quality tiny Italian lentils) to about 45 minutes, so keep an eye on them and check often. They should be tender but not mushy.
Keep a supply of boiling hot lightly salted water available on the stove and add it by the ladleful in the unlikely event your lentils begin to look dry. You can also use the water to make the soup more liquid.
Put the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Sauté gently over low heat until transparent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato purée, the chile, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is visibly reduced and the oil comes to the surface. Add this sauce to the lentils. You should have about 8 cups total. Taste for salt.
At this point, the process can be interrupted and the lentils kept until you are ready to complete the dish. The lentils freeze very well, too. They are best reheated in a double boiler.
When you are ready to continue, heat the lentils gently (if they are not already hot), add 2 cups lightly salted hot water, stir in the pasta, cover the pot, and cook over low heat until the pasta is al dente, which may be very quick.
Discard the bay leaf, stir in the oil, and let the soup rest for a few minutes before serving. It is also excellent served at room temperature.
Note: Lentils continue to absorb water -- like sponges -- long after they’ve finished cooking. In this case, you can certainly add water before reheating, but you will need to taste for salt. You can also just let them absorb as much as they want and eat the dish with a fork.
Coauthor of "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way," "Dictionary of Italian Cuisine," and "Women’s Life in Greece and Rome." Author of "Eat like the Romans: the Visitor's Food Guide," Trattorias of Rome, Florence, and Venice," and Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World "Rome." Translator of "Encyclopedia of Pasta" and "Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio." I came to Rome because of my studies of classics and archaeology and stayed for other reasons.