Lucky strike

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 spaghettipesto-torn chardbalsamico-mozzarella-ravioli-parmigianopizzacosa 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 minestrepasta 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

serves 4

  • 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
  • salt
  • 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.


Filed under food, lentils, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, soup

58 responses to “Lucky strike

  1. I am addicted to lentils now. Addicted. And I often throw pasta in as well. Simple comfort food to coat the stomach! I love a hearty dash of peperoncino on top, too 🙂

    • rachel

      Peperoncino – of course – will try. I keep hoping I will see you at a Rome blogger meeting! x

      • Sara Rosso

        They’re always during the week! I was in town this past weekend but it was US friends + Rome and ended up not being much time for either! Next Rome trip (maybe November?) I’m calling you out for an aperitivo!

  2. Another one to add to the repertoire. I am so enjoying trying all of your recipes!

  3. Ah, forgiving lentils, so wonderfully pliant after a fast simmer. Thank you for a lovely recipe — the battuto is a cooking secret that I never would have guessed. Good luck with the return to work!

    • rachel

      Thank you Ann, I think the idea of starting back is probably harder than the reality will be. Forgiving and pliant – well put.

  4. oof
    ug glug yum
    I want to have a baby just so I can have a morning like that! X

    • rachel

      Come to Rome, I will lend you my baby and you can go pound. I will meet you for lunch at this little place I know (wink) xx

  5. Thank you for another inspiring post. This reminds me a bit of Egyptian koshary with the lentils and noodles. My kind of meal.

  6. That looks amazing, exactly what I’m hungry for tonight and all ingredients I should have in the pantry! I love peasant food.

  7. Oh, yum. Lentils are one of my favourite things – usually made into a thick stew with all of the above (less the meaty bit and the pasta) , a large glass of red wine (plus one for the chef) and some sprigs of rosemary. Ladled over mashed potatoes, it’s a supper to banish all thoughts of London winter evenings. Your soup might be just the thing to do the same to London winter afternoons…
    Good luck with the return to work.

    • rachel

      Thank you. Rosemary scented lentils ladled over mash – thats sounds like my kind of supper. A glass of wine for the chef – I like that note and it leads me to believe we would get on very nicely indeed.

  8. Eha

    Well, love lentils to begin with . . . and you have written this so appetizingly I feel like taking the recipe > kitchen now – well, perhaps I can wait till tonight 🙂 ! With good wishes all the way from Oz to you and your little half-Roman 😀 !

  9. Yep. Will defo be trying that. We’re lentilaholics (within certain parameters).

  10. Thank you for reminding me how delicious pasta e lenticchie is!

  11. You just made me really crave a bowl of that… in bocca al lupo for your going back to work.

  12. I am making this for dinner …. sounds so delicious!
    So the pasta is added “uncooked” to the pot?
    I’m looking forward to dinner tonight!

    • rachel

      It is uncooked, so depending on the type of pasta it shoud take about 9 minutes. You could also use fresh pasta, in which case 3 or 4 minutes should do the trick.

  13. laura

    Okay … you’ve convinced me … or at least your writing skills have. I’ll try it.
    Belatedly but sincerely, auguroni di buon compleanno, Luca.
    And a big IBAL (in bocca al lupo) for Thursday. Re-entry isn’t easy.

  14. Annie

    I, too, have just seen the lentil light! I made pasta e lenticchie from a Lidia Bastianich recipe last week. Hers isn’t so soupy, but still magical. Unexpected from a combination that sounds so boring. Thank you for this version, which I’ll have to try soon.

  15. Yum! When I lived in Italy I went crazy for pasta e ceci, but I never tried pasta e lenticchie. I know what I am cooking tonight…

    • rachel

      If you are already convinced of the joys of pasta e ceci I imagine you will really like this. You could add a sprig of rosemary to the pan I suppose.

  16. Rachel,
    Just to let you know that I made it tonight and It was absolutely DELICIOUS!!! Thank you for the recipe!

  17. good luck soup, sounds like reason enough to eat it everyday. I’m slowly working my way through Zuppe – love every single soup so far – and I will definitely add this one to my list. Enjoy the pounding and the soup!

    • rachel

      HI Talley,
      So happy you are liking and using the soup book! I am winding my way through it too. Mona is coming back to Rome in a couple to weeks for the Italian book release lunch. Alice Waters is coming too. I am very excited. A good luck soup – I love that.

  18. Oh, you can even be lyrical about lentils! Glorious. Pasta e ceci I have tried and loved, Pasta e lenticchie I will save for a special occasion, when I finally admit that winter is coming – and certainly not while I am still determinedly bare-legged, to the concern of my colleagues.

    What I mean to say is, beautiful writing. Beautiful real food. And good luck with your return to work, in bocca al lupo was never more appropriate! xx

    • rachel

      I am writing this on Sunday having started back thursday. Still not full time so a gentle start back It went well, but then teaching 20 little children how to sing and create Theatre in English is a pretty lovely job.
      If you love pasta e ceci I think you will really love this – I wonder what you would draw to go with it x

  19. Lentils grace our table quite often this time of year, but I’ve never added pasta or pecorino. I will definitely be making this!

  20. Sounds like a wonderful recipe! A must try. And thank you also very much for writing about “Zuppe”; helped by that wonderful book I feel I can brave the Danish winter 🙂

    • rachel

      So happy you bought and (more importantly) like zuppe – it is a gem. Winter is a way off but after a long hot summer it is most certainly feeling like autumn here in Rome. keep cosy Agnes!

      • Well, I suppose that what we have here now is like winter in Rome (except for the trees which are definitely autumn-like at the moment). Upon reading the book I realized that summer (vegetables) are coming a month or too later here than in Rome and that the winter feeling (or temperature) is starting equally earlier. So at the moment I am craving all of the autumn/winter recipes all at once 😉 Kind of nice to be reminded of the difference in seasons between Northern and Southern Europe, though.

  21. Susan

    Hi Rachel – I just recently found your blog and want to tell you how absolutely wonderful it is – from your awesome writing and storytelling, your gorgeous photographs and very yummy recipes. I’m so inspired by all of it and keep looking forward to more from you!

    Take care, Susan

  22. Christine

    I grew up on pasta e lenticchie, only my mother would omit the pork (maybe it’s the Sicilian thing to do?) and would add in a smidge of split peas with the lentils – maybe half as much. They would thicken the soup a bit, make it a little greener in color. This is one of the few things my mother didn’t add cheese too, but a little peperoncino, extra black pepper, and extra olive oil were always handy.

    Hope you’re doing well at work! I can’t get over how big and beautiful Luca is! He’s adorable!

    • rachel

      Vincenzo – the Sicilian – always had peperoncino oil (he used snip peperoncino into a jar of olive oil) on his pasta and lentils. I should try and adopt the habit.
      I love the idea of adding some split peas and I am most definitely going to try.

  23. a fabulous rabble of ingredients in that bowl, Rach! I’ve enjoyed pasta e ceci, pasta e fagioli, so pasta e lenticchie will make it a happy trio. Often, it’s these humble hearty dishes that will surprise you with how gratifying they are to eat.

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  25. This sounds so comforting! I’m going to make it this week. Lovely post, as always.

  26. Mimi

    I made this last night and we loved it!! I always look forward to reading your blog, and every recipe of yours I’ve tried has become a favorite. Thanks so much for sharing!

  27. Pingback: Pasta e Lenticchie | rachel's food blog

  28. Taryn

    Hello Rachel! I just found your blog last night and it’s so absolutely lovely. My husband is Moroccan and he has been complaining about the dearth of lentils around here, so I made this for him for lunch. He loved it! I didn’t have any pork nor any celery around the house, but I made due with some nice beef tallow and used some Swiss chard as an add-in. Not quite the same as yours, but it turned out so nicely. Thank you!

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