Pasta with lentils or lentil soup is a New Year’s tradition in many Italian households. The lentil dishes are said to bring to luck to the family on New Year’s Day. I am not sure if anyone really knows exactly why lentils are supposed to be good luck. Maybe it is because they are shaped like small coins?
Whatever the reason, pasta and lentils is a hearty and delicious winter combination. Lentils are rich in protein, and the pasta/lentil combination was probably an important contribution to family nutrition in the days of the “cucina povera” cooking in Italy. Flavored with a bit of pancetta (Italian peppery bacon), garlic and tomato, the lentils make a delicious sauce that coats the pasta beautifully.
I used “maltagliati” or “poorly cut” pasta for this dish, which to me is reminiscent of its “cucina povera,” origins but also because the lentils cling nicely to the short, flat noodles. If you cannot find maltagliati pasta, lasagna noodles broken by hand into small, irregular pieces will give a similar effect.
Buon anno 2019 a tutti! Try my pasta and lentils dish on a wintry day for a warm and comforting meal. -Kathyn Occhipinti
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pancetta (Italian bacon), diced finely
1 small carrot, chopped finely*
1 stalk of celery, chopped finely*
1 small onion, skin removed, chopped finely*
1 small clove garlic, chopped finely
1/2 cup dry Italian wine, such as Chianti
1 cup Italian lentils, rinsed
1 bay leaf
pinch of dried thyme or rosemary
3 cups of water
1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
1 Tbsp. tomato puree
1 lb. maltagliati pasta or lasagna noodles, coarsely broken into small pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
*See below for note about how to chop soup vegetables.
Before starting to make the lentil sauce, put a large pot of salted water to boil on a back burner. Cover so it will come to a boil quickly and be ready when you need to cook the pasta.
Use a large frying pan or Dutch oven to cook the lentils on the stove top. Coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil, which will take about 1/4 cup or so. Let the oil heat a bit over medium heat.
Add the chopped vegetables: carrots, celery, onions, and garlic, and saute in the garlic until they soften, about 5 minutes.
The pour in the red wine and then bring to a boil. Boil off about half of the wine.
Put the lentils to the pan. If you want firmer lentils, you can saute them at this point. Otherwise, add the water. Stir. Bring back to the boil and then lower heat and simmer the lentils about 20 minutes.
When the lentils have softened a bit, remove the bay leaf. Then add the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, and chicken or vegetable broth. Add more water if needed. Bring up to a simmer again and cook 10 – 15 minutes more, or until lentils are of desired tenderness.
Meanwhile, put the pasta into the boiling water. Stir. Cover the pot to return to the boil Remove cover, stir again and let pasta cook, stirring occasionally. Cook for less time than the package directions, to a very firm al dente, as the pasta will finish cooking with the lentils.
When the pasta is ready, drain, reserving some of the pasta water.
Add the pasta to the lentils. Add the pasta water if needed. The sauce should be fairly thick and coat the pasta nicely as you mix.
Cook over medium low heat another 5 minutes or so, until all is heated through and pasta is al dente.
Add the grated cheese and mix again to coat.
Serve steaming hot with crusty bread. Serve additional cheese and black pepper on the side to be added as desired.
New Year’s toast: Buon Anno! Buon Appetito!
*How to Chop Vegetables
Carrots: Cut lengthwise to half, and then lengthwise again to get quarters. Line them up side by side and then cut crosswise from the tips to the base of the carrot to get small, even pieces that look like quarters of a circle.
Celery: Cut lengthwise through each celery stalk as many times as needed to give pieces the same thickness as the carrot pieces. (You will need more lengthwise cuts at the thicker part of the celery near the base.) Then cut crosswise from the tip to the base to get small, rectangular pieces of celery about the same size as the carrot pieces.
Onions: Cut lengthwise through the onion. Turn one of the halves flat side down. Holding the onion together with one hand, cut lengthwise along the green lines through the onion, except for the root holding the onion together at the base. Turn and cut horizontally, from the side away from the stem toward the stem. Just before reaching the stem, flip the onion flat again and make the final cuts. Discard the piece that contains the stem.
— by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Italian Pasta and Lentils for New Year’s Good Luck