Pasta and Lentils (Pasta e Lenticchie)

by Min Merrell
pasta with lentils

Pasta with Lentils, among the most simple home cooking recipes from Southern Italy, is the Italian good luck version of southern black-eyed peas. I plan to eat it regularly and expect exceptionally good luck all year long.

I’ve truly hit the saturation point with over-the-top fancy restaurant cooking techniques. It actually happened (again) a couple of weeks ago when R.B. and I ordered a simple roast chicken for two served over Brussels sprout leaves at Josephine’s in Nashville. Roast chicken is one of the most basic, perfect foods. If you can roast a chicken that makes you stand in the kitchen devouring a crispy, tender chicken wing, you are living well. No fancy ingredients or techniques, just salt and pepper, and a hot oven.

So, back to Josephine and the lovely roast chicken. We asked the server about it and were treated to a dissertation about our little local bird’s long journey to the table, including a night in a brine, followed by several hours of sous vide cooking, then a flash fry right before serving. A work of art, but the simplest dish performed as an Olympic floor exercise. We went for dinner but paid for the show.

I say let’s cook foods that taste that good and are good for you and skip the stagecraft. Our Cheater Chef crispy grilled shelf chicken is just that kind of dish. Simple method, spectacular results. So are about a million other dishes people have been making for ages. Let’s concentrate on that kind of cooking, shall we?

Simple ingredients and simple cooking methods brought me back to a favorite cookbook, Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table (Harper Collins, 1998). Without exception, every time I open it I ask myself why we don’t we eat like this every day.

When I was a kid in the early 1970s my family lived in Naples where I was fortunate to have been exposed to this style of home cooking early in life. Our Carmella cooked for us what I then thought was exotic edible nirvana. Turns out it was basic pasta fagioli. And it was nirvana.

Arthur’s recipe for Pasta e Lenticchie is just like that. The two named ingredients may not sound special, but put together they are magic. I looked up his recipe after reading the funny Acini Di Pepe and Lentil Soup recipe on the back of the De Cecco box the other day. Back-of-the-box recipes are always hilariously lost in translation, calling for weird ingredient amounts, like 53 ounces of broth and 10 ounces of pasta. My version below combines a little of both, all in keeping with the Neopolitan improvisational tradition. With no one dominant ingredient, it easily cooks up into a satisfying meal that is quite magical.

I like to use cooked lentils in the recipe and often make a whole bag and keep them in the refrigerator for various uses. The easiest bean to cook, just put the rinsed lentils in a saucepan and cover with a couple of inches of water, add about a teaspoon of salt, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 20 to 30 minutes, just until al dente. Drain the excess water and keep the beans covered in the fridge. Now add them to pasta, soups, and salads.

I used the cute little acini di pepe (peppercorn-size balls) in my Pasta and Lentils recipe, but any small pasta shape will do. Arthur suggests broken vermicelli or capellini. I learned by listening to this podcast that the best way to break pasta into pieces is in a dish towel. There’s a trick I needed years ago.

To embrace some kitchen simplicity in 2015 I heartily recommend Arthur Schwartz’s latest Kindle edition of The Southern Italian Table: Authentic Tastes from Traditional Kitchens.

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