An Italian Recipe for Winter: Pasta With Lentils
On New Year’s Eve a steaming pot of lentils with sausages and slices of cotechino was always on the dinner menu at home in Perugia. In preparing this festive comfort dish with the aromatic smell and strong flavor of cured pork meat, my mother followed a tradition meant to bring prosperity, as the lentils have come to symbolize coins. As a child, I didn’t know that the lentils we ate were quite special.
Umbria, the region in the heart of Italy of which Perugia is the capital city, is renowned for the cultivation of various legumes: the lentils from Castello di Norcia I ate as a child, lentils from the Altopiano di Colfiorito, cicerchia beans and others.
Both Castelluccio and Colfiorito lentils are small, don’t need to be soaked in advance and cook relatively quickly. WHen cooked, they keep their thin skin and shape. Most importantly, they are a concentrate of flavor. A mouthful brings you right to the green heart of Italy and its small towns full of history and traditions.
Castelluccio di Norcia is a village high up on the Sibillini Mountains. The Altopiano di Colfiorito is a plateau famous for the cultivation of lentils and a variety of red potatoes. Both Castelluccio and Colfiorito are located on the eastern part of Umbria.
Look for these lentils in the stores in your area or online and taste them if you visit Umbria; you’ll appreciate these small members of the lentil family. And if you cannot find these lentils, black beluga and du Puy (French) lentils can be used instead of Umbrian lentils in the recipe below. Nutritious lentils marry well with pasta to make a complete meal.
The recipe can be prepared relatively quickly and doesn’t require a lot of preparation. If you have lentils, strained tomatoes and pasta available, you are ready to go.
To learn how to pronounce the Italian words and phrases above, click here.
Pasta with Lentils
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Ingredients for the lentils:
100 g. (3.5 oz or 1/2 cup) Castelluccio lentils or Colfiorito lentils (or other small lentils like black beluga or du Puy)
270 ml/1 cup + 2 Tbsp. water
A garlic clove, unpeeled
A small bay leaf
A pinch of fine sea salt
Ingredients for the tomato sauce:
1/2 Tbsp./7.5 ml extra-virgin olive oil
A shallot, minced
Leaves of a couple sprigs of fresh thyme
A small garlic clove, minced
1 cup/240 ml strained tomatoes
Fine sea salt, to taste
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
6 oz./170 g. dry pasta of a short shape, like chiocciole
For the lentils:
1. Sort through lentils and remove any pebbles and bits of debris, then rinse in cold water and drain
2. Place the lentils in a small saucepan with water, garlic and bay leaf. Cover, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook gently until lentils are tender. Check after 15 minutes and estimate the time necessary to complete the cooking. (Do not overcook them.)
3. While the lentils are cooking, prepare the tomato sauce (see below).
4. When the lentils are ready, remove pan from the heat and take out the garlic and bay leaf. (There should be a small amount of cooking liquid left in the pan. If there is more than a tablespoonful, remove the excess. On the other hand, if the pan becomes dry while the lentils are cooking, add some hot water). Sprinkle salt on lentils and stir.
5. Towards the end of the cooking, start heating up water to cook the pasta.
For the tomato sauce:
1. In a small saucepan, warm up the olive oil, then add the shallot and thyme. Cook gently for a few minutes until translucid, then add the garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes, then pour in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook for 8-10 minutes. Adjust salt, then add pepper and stir.
2. Transfer lentils to a larger saucepan that will be able to hold the cooked pasta as well. Add the tomato sauce and stir well. Keep warm on very low heat while the pasta cooks.
How to complete the dish:
1. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add some coarse salt and stir, then toss the pasta in it. The time needed to cook the pasta is variable, depending on the size and shape.
2. Taste and stop the cooking when the pasta is cooked to al dente (firm to the bite). Remove the pot from the heat, pour a glass of cold water in it, stir and drain the pasta.
3. Transfer the pasta to the saucepan with the lentils. Turn up the heat a bit. Stir well for half a minute or so. Plate and serve immediately.
With a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.