28 January 2011

Spaghetti and Lentils, Hearty Fare for a Winters Day

It's still comfort food time as far as I'm concerned. I don't know about you, but spring is still a ways away and this is a tasty somewhat lighter variation of the classic Italian dish," pasta e fagioli", or pasta and beans. It's a dish I love. I usually use a short tube pasta with borlotti beans. The broth of the beans and the starch of the pasta makes for a simple thick stew whose rich flavor is comfort at it's best. This version combines lentils and spaghetti. There are many variations in the different regions and when I came across Joe of Italyville family's version, who hail from Calabria and whose recipe features lentils and spaghetti, I knew it would be a combination I would love, and I do. You can find his family's "Italian Lentil Soup" original recipe here.  I've updated mine to include farro or spelt spaghetti as it's nutty flavor goes well with the earthy lentils. Generally, I'm not a fan of whole wheat pasta (don't get Joe started on that subject) as I find it heavy and strange in it's texture, but spelt is entirely different, in my opinion. It has all the slippery qualities of regular white pasta, but with added flavor and many health claims that are attached to spelt. I find that it just tastes great. I like to use small lentils as they cook up faster and with out the need to soak them over night. I find that I tend to decide to make this pretty much last minute, so the minimal cooking time is a bonus, although regular lentils don't really take that much longer to cook and makes a hearty bowl of pasta goodness.

I always have a bit of a chuckle whenever I make pasta and beans, as it reminds me of an incident that cemented in my mind just how regional Italian cuisine is. When we first opened  Bella Baita, our B&B, back in 2003, we were casting about looking for guests, since we returned to Fabrizio's family business that had really only focused on their osteria/restaurant, La Baita. Even though they had built on a few rooms, they never really pursued the business side of renting out the rooms. Although we were on the map for the locals, as "La Baita" had been very popular over the years, there was no past history to draw upon. We cast about for what ever we could find that came our way and luckily we made a connection with a couple of companies that were building the new tunnels for the new and improved road up our valley. This effort was all a part of the infrastructure improvement and run up to the 2006 Winter Olympics that were held here. We were fortunate to have a group of workers, from the south of Italy, that were here working to build the new tunnels. They were to stay with us until their company could arrange more permanent accommodations for them. We sent them off at 5 am after a quick coffee and brioche and they returned to eat dinner with us in the evening. The first couple of days we made what is typical of primi piatti here, soup and risotto, to a less than enthusiastic response. How odd indeed, as these are the things that you find on menus and in the homes of northern Italians and we didn't think we were that bad of cooks. On the 3rd night one of them asked us why we didn't serve pasta. Ah ha, the light bulb over the head goes on. Yes, of course, pasta! The next night we served pasta e fagioli and were greeted with ear to ear grins and clean plates all round. It was pasta every night every night after that to happy eaters and satisfied cooks. I still remember that first plate of pasta e fagioli and their beaming faces, and I find a myself braking out into a grin.  I think you'll find this might rustle up some smiles and satisfaction to you and yours as well.
I made half this recipe for the two of us with enough to serve for lunch the next day. 

Spaghetti e Lenticchie (Lentils)
 Serves 4-6 
  • 100g pancetta, speck or prosciutto crudo, or bacon, diced
  • 2 leeks, sliced in semi circles or 1 large onion, diced 
  • 2-3 stalks of celery – diced, mine were kind of small
  • 2  large carrots – diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced'
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1tsp thyme, dry  
  • 60g /1/4 c white wine
  • 200g /1c lentils, I like to use organic and the really small ones for faster cooking
  • water or vegetable or chicken stock about 700g/3 cups
  • 6 plum type tomatoes,  peeled and chopped, I used San Marzano varieties that I had frozen
  • or a can of diced tomatoes, can size is up to you
  • 300g /a little over 1/2 box of spaghetti,  I like farro or spelt spaghetti
  • small piece of parmesan rind, if you have it
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • Garnish with fresh thyme or parsley if you have any, for a nice touch

In a large deep saute pan Pour a small amount of oil and begin to cook your pancetta or bacon. If you meat is very  fatty, you might not need the oil. If you are using a lean parma/prosciutto  ham you will need the oil. Saute for a while until it starts to get crispy. I like to remove most of the pork, reserving it to add at the end so it still retains some texture and flavor. 
Either drain off some of the fat if too oily or add a little more olive oil and add your diced leek, or onion, carrot, celery and garlic. 
Continue to cook over a moderate flame until just starting to soften, about 5 minutes or so.
Add the thyme and bay leaf and white wine
Continue to cook until the white wine is almost evaporated
Then add the lentils and stir thoroughly and let it cook a few minutes.
Add vegetable or chicken stock if you like, but I usually just use water to completely cover the whole mixture and you have a loose soupy consistency. You will probably add about 3 c or more. You will be adding more later. 
If you have a piece of parmesan rind, add it at this time for that little added flavor to your mix and it will be the cooks reward later.
Let it all simmer for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are soft.
Add more water now, not stock, and bring your liquid back up to where you started and maybe even a little more. 
Add some salt. Taste it. You want to be able to tell that you have salt, but is not enough that you would serve it, yet. You will adjust your salt at the end. 
Add your diced tomatoes.
Break your spaghetti in half and add to your soup.
Let it all simmer till your spaghetti is just about al dente. 
Add your reserved pancetta or salty pork.
Taste it again and adjust your salt and add some pepper. 
Retrieve the softened parmesan rind, your cooks reward 
Garnish with fresh chopped herbs like thyme and chives or parsley and serve.

Wait for the grins from ear to ear!
Buon appetito!
My crusty bread to sop up the juices


Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

Pass me a loaf of that bread to sop up all the juices...so good!!!!

Vivian Cardinale said...

beautiful dish . . . fabulous blog! Am really enjoying it :)

Bella Baita Marla said...

Thanks! Val and Vivian, do stop by again.

joe@italyville said...

Thanks for the mention Marla! Yours looks delicious and that bread....

Bella Baita Marla said...

My pleasure Joe, bread baking is one of my passions. Luckily I live with a bread monster.

Elisa in Canada said...

I am looking to make a vegetarian version of this dish. Would you suggest omitting the bacon and adding something in its place?

Bella Baita Marla said...

Sure Eliza. You could use your favorite protein (tempeh, firm tofu, etc) instead if you like, but I am sure it would be just as tasty without the bacon.

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