Lately I’ve been walking. Pounding really, most mornings, while I still can, before my teaching and work at Teatro Verde burst the weird and wondrous bubble that is maternity leave. Pounding the streets of this stupendous city with well-caffeinated blood, sensible shoes, a small and increasingly vocal half Roman strapped to my chest and no particular destination in mind. On Friday we followed the deep curves of the Tevere river from Ponte Sublico all the way to Ponte Cavour. We had our second breakfast at Antonini before weaving our way through the ochre and terracotta hued warren of medieval lanes and tiny piazzas: Via dei Coronari, Piazza della Pace, Via del Governo Vecchio. We paused to inhale the Pantheon and talk to a cheeky dog called Pio before striding across Largo Argentina, crossing the Ghetto and then crunching leaves all the way along Lungotevere. It was a pretty glorious morning. Then I made pasta e lenticchie for Lunch.
If you’d told me eight years ago that Pasta e lenticchie would become one of my preferred things to eat, I’d have sniffed and told you to pass me the spaghetti-pesto-torn chard-balsamico-mozzarella-ravioli-parmigiano-pizza-cosa immediately. For most of my first year in Rome I continued resisting and persisting! ‘Yes of course I’ve heard of pasta e lenticchie! It’s pasta mixed with lentils! Sounds a little dreary don’t you think?‘ I ignored, snubbed and slighted every suggestion of Pasta e lenticchie I encountered.
It was New Years Eve when I saw the lentil light. As the clock struck midnight I was presented with an auspicious Italian tradition, a plate of braised lentils crowned with three slices of such rudely pink, fat Cotechino sausage it almost made me blush. Words and excuses tumbled from my mouth! ‘It’s midnight! We’ve been eating and drinking and drinking and eating since six o clock! I can’t possibly eat another…..’ ’But you must’ I was told earnestly. ‘It’s the lentils you see, like little coins, they’ll bring you luck. They’re delicious too. Mangia.’
They were indeed, properly delicious, soft, earthy little orbs. Full flavoured too – clearly cooked with a fearless quality of guanciale - and a perfect foil for the rich, glutenous Cotechino. For lunch on New Years Day the rest of the lentils were reheated with a little broth, fortified with pasta and served with a glug of raw olive oil and a blizzard of pecorino romano. Riches of the monetary kind may not have been forthcoming that particular year, but at least I’d understood.
Like the reigning king and queen of hearty minestre: pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, pasta e lenticchie is a dense, hearty, elemental soup with pasta. Most regions have a version of pasta e lenticchie and Lazio, more specifically Rome, is no exception. I’m reliably informed that the key to pasta e lenticchie Roman style is a serious battuto. Now battuto, which comes from the verb battere (to strike) describes the finely chopped rabble of ingredients produced by striking them on a chopping board with a knife. Like many Roman dishes the battuto for pasta e lenticchie is a mixture of guanciale, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley. Strike.
Having prepared your battuto you need to sauté it over a modest heat in a heavy based pan until the vegetables are extremely tender, golden and – with much of their water sautéed away – intensely flavoured. This is the soffritto. Some people like to add the battuto in stages: onion and guanciale first, carrot, celery and parsley a few minutes later and last, but by no means least, the delicate garlic. I don’t, I do however keep an eagle eye on the pan. Once the vegetables are soft and your kitchen is filled with the most tremendous heady scent, you add a couple of peeled plum tomatoes and let the contents of pan bubble a little longer. Now add the lentils – ideally the lovely browny-grey ones from Castelluccio di Norcia - nudge them round the pan so they are well coated with the fragrant fat. Next water, enough to cover the lentils by a couple of centimeters. Bring the soup to the boil and them reduce it to a trembling simmer – keeping a beady eye on the water level – for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Taste, season generously (remember you are going to add pasta) and taste again
To finish, you cook the pasta in the soup. The tiny tubes called ditalini are particularly nice. Bring the soup to a boil, making sure there are still a couple of centimeters of liquid above the lentils and tip in the pasta. Keep stirring attentively, nudging and adding more water if the soup becomes too thick or the pasta starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. Keep tasting too, lunch is ready when the pasta is tender but al dente and the soup is thick but eminently spoonable and rippling. Don’t be afraid to add a little more water, even just before serving! Just check the seasoning again.
Wait another five minutes or so for the flavours to settle. Serve your pasta e lenticchie with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a shower of freshly grated pecorino Romano or parmesan cheese. A tumbler of wine is advisable too – this is good – after all I’m not back at work until Thursday.
This is one of the most deeply satisfying bowls of food I know! A judicious, delicious and auspicious one too. Also for someone like me, someone who lacks bean foresight and nearly always forgets to soak, lentils – which don’t require a long bath – are a precious kitchen staple. As a guanciale devotee, I relish its presence and the deep fatty notes it bestows on this dish. That said, pasta e lenticchie is (almost) as good when made with pancetta or very fatty bacon. It is also – hello Rosie and my vegetarian friends – excellent when made without any meat at all! Just remember to add a large parmesan crust to the pan at the same time as the water.
Pasta e Lenticchie Pasta with lentils
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 75 g guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon
- a medium-sized onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- a medium-sized carrot
- a stalk or two of leafy parsley
- a stalk of celery
- 4 plum tomatoes (either fresh or tinned)
- 300 g small brown/grey lentils
- 350 g short tubular pasta
- black pepper
- parmesan or pecorino cheese
- extra virgin olive oil for serving
Very finely chop the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon. Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot, parsley and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then add the guanciale, pancetta or fatty bacon, diced vegetables and a pinch of salt. Saute the ingredients, stirring and turning them regularly, until they are very soft and golden which should take about 15 minutes.
If you are using fresh tomatoes peel them, cut them in half, scoop away most of the seeds and then chop them roughly. If you are using tinned plum tomatoes simply chop them roughly. Add the tomatoes to the pan, stir to coat them well and then cook for another few minutes.
Add the lentils to the pan, turning them two or three times to coat them well. Add enough water to cover the lentils by a couple of cm’s. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil and the reduce the heat so the lentils and vegetables simmer gently, stirring every now and then for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Make sure the level of water is always more or less a couple of cm above the lentils, replenish with as much water as needed.
Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, taste and season again if necessary. Add the pasta and raise the heat so the lentils and pasta boil gently. Keep stirring attentively as the pasta will stick to the base of the pan. Add more water if necessary. Once the pasta is cooked (tender but still with a slight bite) remove from the heat and let the pan sit for 5 minutes.
Serve with a little extra virgin olive oil poured on top and pass around a bowl of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano for those who wish.