Yield: Serves 6 as a main dish
Here's a recipe from the farmhouse kitchens of Modena that raises pasta and legumes to a new elegance. The lentils are so aromatic and satisfying. You may want to eat them on their own. They get their good taste from browned bits of pancetta. Just before the dish is served, a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano is added to the pasta and lentils. As Parmigiano always does, it lifts all the flavors, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I can't explain the science, but the cheese never fails.
Working Ahead: The lentils can be cooked and combined with the sautéed aromatics a day ahead. The pancetta can be cooked at the same time, but store it separately from the lentils. Cool, cover, and refrigerate everything. Reheat the lentils and add the pancetta before blending them with the pasta.
- 1 1/4 cups (8 ounces) green or brown lentils
- 1/2 stalk celery with leaves, halved
- 1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 8 large fresh sage leaves, chopped, or 8 whole dried sage leaves
- l large clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Aromatics and Pasta:
- 4 ounces lean pancetta, thickly sliced
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 10 whole fresh sage leaves, chopped or 10 whole dried sage leaves
- 2 1/2 medium onions, finely chopped
- l large clove garlic , minced
- 14-ounce can tomatoes, drained
- l pound dried imported Italian Pappardelle pasta
- 6 to 8 quarts boiling salted water
- 2/3 to l cup pasta water
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) freshly grated imported Italian
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1. Cooking the Lentils: Combine lentils, celery, first quantity of onion, sage, and garlic, and wine in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Add enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring water to a boil.
- Turn heat down so water bubbles very slowly. Stir the lentils gently with a wooden spatula, taking care not to break them, then partially cover the pan. Cook about 15 to 18 minutes or until lentils are tender enough to eat, but still have some firmness when tasted, and are not falling apart.
- Uncover the pan and let them cool in their liquid as you prepare the aromatics.
- 2. Cooking the Aromatics: Coarsely chop the pancetta into pieces about 1/2 inch square. Cook pancetta in a large skillet set over medium low heat. Encourage it to give up almost all of its fat by cooking very slowly.
- Once most of the fat has melted away from the pancetta, raise heat just a little, and slowly brown the pieces to a warm golden color. Have several layers of paper towels laid out on a plate, ready to drain the browned pancetta. Lift out bits with a slotted spoon and spread on the towels.
- Add olive oil to the pan and set over medium heat. Once oil is hot (about l minute), add onion and sage. Cook over medium heat about 15 minutes or until onion becomes a rich, deep, golden brown. Stir frequently with a wooden spatula. When onion is browned, stir in garlic and cook about a minute. Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer and stir until thick (about 5 minutes).
- Drain the lentils. Discard larger pieces of onion and celery. Turn the lentils into the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat about 10 minutes so they absorb some of the rich flavor from the onions. Keep running the wooden spatula along the pan bottom, under the lentils, to keep them from sticking. Stir in reserved pancetta, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- 3. Cooking the Pasta and Assembling the Dish: Have a serving bowl and soup dishes warming in a low oven.
- Bring pasta water to a vigorous boil. Break Pappardelle into 3-inch pieces. Drop into the water and cook at a fierce boil, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes, or until tender but still a bit firm to the bite.
- As pasta cooks, warm the lentils over medium heat. Add about 2/3 cup of the pasta water, carefully stirring it in so as not to break them up. Lentils should be moistened, but not soupy. A little liquid should cover the bottom of the skillet, so you are be able to scrape up any brown bits there. If necessary, add another 1/3 cup water.
- Taste pasta, checking that it is tender, but still has a little resistance to the bite. Drain in a colander and then toss with the lentils. Blend in the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and taste for seasoning. Turn the pasta and lentils into the heated bowl and serve immediately.
- Wine Suggestions: Drink a red wine that is generous and fills the mouth with fruit like a Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva from Emilia-Romagna, a Piemontese Dolcetto d'Alba, Alto Adige's Pinot Nero, or a Merlot from the Veneto.
- Cook's Notes: Lentils: France's green lentil from the Puy area is exceptionally flavorful in this dish. Fine them in specialty foods stores.