on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.


When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.


Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.


I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.


True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.


A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.


Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.


There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.


Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, recipes, soup, Testaccio, Uncategorized, winter recipes

26 responses to “on washing and lentils

  1. carolbaby

    As with most things you make, this looks fabulous.

    Congrats on the guardian residency! Great stuff – you deserve a wider readership.

    • rachel

      Thanks Carol, I enjoyed writing the pieces for the Guardian as much as I enjoy writing here – meaning a lot. Thanks too for taking the time to tell me – R

  2. Dear Rachel, I enjoyed so much reading your little lentils story! It is lovely how sometimes certain aromas or locations could mark our experience so strongly so that they could keep evoking particular periods of our life.
    Very yummy as well!

    • rachel

      So glad you enjoyed reading and yes, it is extraordinary how some smells and places remain so pertinent in our mind…..that building and the cooking smells that swirled around it will always rest in my mind I think.

  3. You can repeat this entertaining post as often as you like. I was so pleased to see you being introduced to a whole new audience via the pages of the Guardian. Now you’re going viral, don’t forget your early adopters!

  4. I can smell that trattoria of your first building and picture the “tut tut”of the meticulous washing sisters. You have painted such a homely scene. This is a great lentil dish, a perfect accompaniment to pasta and thanks for advising you reheat half the next day to serve differently. A wonderful story Rachel 😀

  5. This was so pleasurable to read and to watch. Thank you for reminding us of the wonder of simple food!

  6. Gadi ben Rosen

    Truly wonderful. I let go of my jumbled thoughts and let you take me for a ride I have never experienced. I’m a Newbie what it comes to Italian Cuisine. Just started as a waiter at Lucia in Bishop Arts/Dallas and have to learn more about “the food I serve”. Thank You for your warm insights,
    Cheers, Gadi

  7. Oh man, this takes me back to my year abroad in Rome (back in 2000-01). It was in Italy that I first learned to love beans and lentils in simple stewy dishes. Before that, I never realized how perfect they could be. I so want to make this now.

    • rachel

      It sounds like we had a similar experience/stewy epiphany…..I was so suspicious at first, but then (like you) realized they could be simply delicious.x

  8. Lovely story, I never think of cooking lentils but might now. I read your polpette article in the Guardian, it made me laugh about all the grannies and Mums who make the BEST ever meatballs!

    • rachel

      the best in the world……of course they do and then the advice, the endless advice, which is all part of the endless, vigorous discussion. Thx for reading x

  9. Michael

    Your Guardian residency has been a refreshing contribution to pages often too foodie for words. Your three posts highlighting simple meals for the family reverberate.

    There are many similarities with Galicia. Lentils are a weekly staple for many families, but I’d never had fried eggs with lentils until I arrived here, many years ago, and with fresh farm eggs incredibly delicious. Meatballs, ‘albondigas’, invariably mix pork (I prefer sausage too) with baby beef (not much veal here). For the stew, most families use a pressure cooker, as electricity is so expensive in Spain. I do for part of the time, and then add the veggies for the last half an hour or so without pressure.

    Also, so nice to see photographs of you and Luca! Keep up the good work, Michael.

    • rachel

      hello M, I am so glad you enjoyed the residency, I enjoyed writing it very much and the response to the recipes has been warm and companionable; I couldn’t ask for more. It sounds like me have much in common food wise and I really need a pressure cooker. All best Rx

      • Michael

        I was lucky to get one second hand as they are very common in Spain. It’s a good idea to look around the markets as new ones can be pricey and they really are quite simple devices and easy to use. I might add that your post a while back on tomato sauce inspired me to get a mouli or ‘pasa pure’ as they’re called in Spanish!

  10. I love this kind of eating as well…

  11. Pingback: First of all, cooking from scratch. | I believe in eating

  12. i love following you and dreaming of life in Italy. i can’t complain ….but NC is a long shot!! i made the lentils last week and they were wonderful. my daughter is single so i shared some with her. she is still raving and begging me to make them again! i cook lentils alot but these are my favorites. i think it’s the simple Italian way so every ingredient stands out. love every post and your precious son!! Happy holidays!!

  13. Malvina Crook

    I love your response to Italian living. As an English woman who lived in southern Italy for 8 years, I returned with an appreciation of ”la cucina povera’ which you certainly have. Also I have taken over the family responsibility of making marmalade so very much appreciate your ups and downs of this heavenly concoction. My brother now has a villa in Umbria so the lentils of Castelluccio di Norcia are very familiar to me. Local, seasonal and genuine… you can’t go wrong.

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