It might seem like a mistake to transfer the rich sofrito into the large pot of lentils and their cooking water, but all the liquid is necessary so the pasta will cook right in the sauce. For best results, use a good-quality tomato puree.
Grated cheese is not usually served with this, but a sharp pecorino would be good.
Make Ahead: This hearty dish tastes just as good as reheated leftovers.
Servings: 6 - 8
- 3 quarts water, plus more as needed to finish cooking the pasta
- 1 medium onion, finely minced (about 1 cup)
- 2 outside celery ribs, finely minced (about 1 cup)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 pound lentils, preferably small European brown lentils
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 ounce pancetta, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 small carrot, finely minced (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Leaves from 6 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, chopped (1/2 cup)
- 1 1/2 cups good-quality tomato puree (may substitute 14 ounces of canned peeled plum tomatoes, crushed)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (may substitute freshly ground black pepper), or more to taste
- 8 ounces regular or thick spaghetti, broken into 2-to-3-inch pieces (may substitute small tubular pasta such as pennette)
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
Bring the water to a rolling boil in a 4-to-5-quart pot over high heat. Add half of the onion, half of the celery and 2 teaspoons of the salt; cook for about 1 minute, then add the lentils and stir to mix well. Once the water returns to a boil, cook uncovered for 20 to 24 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the lentils are almost tender.
Meanwhile, combine the oil and pancetta in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once the pancetta starts sizzling and has rendered a little of its fat, add the remaining onion and celery, along with the carrot, garlic and parsley; mix well. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender.
Add the tomato puree, tomato paste, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the crushed red pepper flakes; mix well. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
When the lentils are tender, transfer the pancetta-tomato mixture into the large pot (with the cooking water in it); stir to incorporate, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the pasta and increase the heat to medium-high so the mixture comes to a boil. Cook for at least 5 minutes, depending on the type of pasta used, stirring often so it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. The pasta can be firm or soft, and the dish can be soupy or dry; it's up to you. Add water as needed, a little at a time, to keep the mixture boiling and bring it to the desired consistency.
Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Drizzle portions with the extra-virgin olive oil.
Adapted from "The Southern Italian Table," by Arthur Schwartz (Clarkson Potter, 2009).
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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