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
- 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.
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.
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.