An Argument in Favor of Starch-on-Starch
Get ready for winter with pasta and lentils and other variants of pasta + starch
One of the things that delight me about Italian pasta cooking is its occasional redundancy.
To my parents, eating, say, pasta and potatoes would have been unhealthy in some undefined way and frowned upon as “starch on starch.” Yet pasta with potatoes is a great dish — especially on a chilly evening. And so is the better-known pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans, often in a particularly warming souplike version). Then, there’s pasta with chickpeas, of which I described a not-so-classic variant.
Here I shall describe our new favorite: pasta with lentils. It began a few days before with a dinner of juicy garlic sausage from the good New Jersey supplier D’Artagnan (we bought one at our local supermarket of all places). We ate ours with crushed potatoes dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and little lentils (these were lentilles du Puy, from France, but any green/brown variety will do). You may favor a different way of cooking lentils: Use it, by all means. The point is to have some flavorful cooked lentils and lentil broth.
I cooked half a pound (225 grams) of lentils thus after soaking them for a few hours (quantities are mere suggestions):
In an enameled cast iron pot, I slowly browned a handful of ⅛-inch (3 millimeter) bacon batons (cut across the slices; you could also use guanciale or pancetta, but bacon’s smoky flavor is good with the lentils), removed and reserved some of the fat, then added olive oil and sweated a large shallot, a tiny clove of garlic, 4 inches (10 centimeters) of carrot and a smallish piece of red bell pepper, all cut into a tiny dice and sprinkled with salt.
When the vegetables had softened a bit, after perhaps 5 minutes, I added 4 or 5 cherry tomatoes, quartered (optional but recommended; you could also use ¼ cup [60 milliliters] simple tomato sauce), and few grinds of black pepper, then the drained lentils and enough water to cover them.
When it came to the boil, I lowered the heat to a gentle but visibly bubbling simmer and cooked, partly covered, until the lentils were cooked but closer to chewy than to mushy, checking every once in a while to make sure the water wasn’t disappearing too quickly, and adding more as needed.
To serve them with the sausage, I dished them up with a slotted spoon and added only a little of the cooking liquid. The remainder got stowed until a couple of days later: Pasta Day.
The rest is as easy as can be — and takes only as long as it takes the pasta to cook.
For two portions, reheat about 1 to 1½ cups (235–375 milliliters) of lentils and their broth. In a second pan, put 150 grams (a generous 5 ounces) short pasta, such as small penne, to boil in salted water. When it has softened and become pliable but remains chalky at the center, use a slotted spoon or a spider to move the pasta to the simmering lentils. Stir to combine, and add pasta-cooking water or stock just to cover. Check for salt.
Simmer, stirring regularly, until the pasta is soft. The whole process could take 10 minutes, but depending on your pasta, it could take a few minutes longer.
Finish with some parsley or — better — mint, roughly chopped or hand-torn. Grated cheese is certainly an option, but taste before you sprinkle.
At the moment, I can think of no better legume to serve with pasta. But check in with me in a few months: I’m fickle and might well transfer my allegiance back to chickpeas or potatoes.