As much as I would like to live in a perpetual state of summer, as soon as the days become shorter, the skies greyer and the mercury drops to the teens, I almost immediately start thinking about lentil soup.
In my honest opinion, lentils are unforgivably underrated. In fact, in 2006, the Huffington Post published an article, ‘Lentils are the Superfood You’ve Forgotten About’. While I am not about to get all hipster about this humble legume – I can assure you that my views on the subject of lentils are all about flavour and versatility in cooking – lentils are a rarity in that they pack a punch of both carbohydrate and protein, let alone a whole lot of magnesium, fibre and folate all which aid in lowering cholesterol, improving digestion, combatting heart disease and supporting oxygen flow. All of this in one tiny little seed! If you need any more convincing, how about the fact they are a cheap staple that last an eternity dried in the pantry? Or what about the fact that they could very well make you rich?!
‘Rich?’ I hear you ask?
In Ancient Rome, it was customary to give a scarsella, a leather bag filled with lentils, as a gift on New Year’s Eve. The bag would be worn tied to the belt with the hope that the lentils would turn into gold coins and see the wearer of the scarsella enter into the new year with an abundance of wealth. If you happen to be in Italy for New Year’s Eve, you could walk around with a bag of lentils tied to your belt should you so choose, but perhaps you’d rather just sit down to enjoy a meal of lentils around midnight like most other Italians?
There are so many versions of lentil soups in Italy that you could not really pinpoint any particular one as a being typical or traditional. The base of the soup – onions, garlic, celery, carrot – are the usual suspects in any Italian soup or braise, known as the soffritto. Perhaps what varies the most is the presence, or otherwise, of tomato. The addition of tinned tomatoes or tomato paste gives a slight sweetness to the soup emphasised by the carrots. If using tomato paste in place of tomato, I would add a heaped tablespoon to the soffritto and mix it well to coat the vegetables and herbs in the tomato paste and oil before adding the pancetta and the stock. I often make this without any tomato – whole or paste – which allows the lentils to stand alone; it is earthier and the colour of the soup will be much more like the colour of the lentils themselves.
I have used the smaller puy lentils (small French style lentils) which are almost black in colour. They don’t need to be soaked or pre-boiled like their larger siblings, though I have a preference for bigger brown lentils in this sort of soup when I have the time to prepare them in advance. With puy lentils, you only need to rinse them in cold water before adding to the soup and they cook quickly in 30 – 40 minutes and tend to hold their shape well.
A note on this soup
The pasta will continue to absorb the water in this soup and plump up, thickening the soup to almost a stew type consistency, especially if you are planning on keeping leftovers to reheat the next day when the soup will deepen in flavour. I like it like this. I usually just add a little extra water before reheating. If you are not a fan of thick meal-in-a-bowl style soups, cook the pasta separately in a saucepan of salted water. When you come to serve the soup, spoon your desired quantity of cooked pasta into your serving bowls and ladle the soup over the top.
ZUPPA DI PASTA E LENTICCHIE
Pasta and Lentil Soup
Serves 6 – 8
- 1 cup puy (small French style) lentil, rinsed in cold water
- 1 cup ditalini, tubetti or other small pasta
- 1 piece pancetta, 2cm thick (I have used 2 pieces, 1cm thickness here), finely chopped or minced
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 stalk celery, diced; leaves reserved and chopped
- 400g tinned whole tomatoes, squashed by hand or roughly mashed with a fork
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 3 – 4 cups water
- piece of rind from pecorino, grana padano or parmesan cheese
- 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1/2 bunch of parsley; stalks finely chopped, leaves roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon chilli (optional), extra to serve
- fresh ricotta to serve (optional)
- 2 – 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Heat oil in a large deep heavy based saucepan.
Add onion, garlic, celery stalks (reserve the leaves), carrots, chopped parsley stalks and thyme leaves and cook for a few minutes until onions start to turn translucent.
Add the chilli flakes, stir to combine and cook another minute.
Add the pancetta and cook for 3 – 4 minutes, or until the pancetta starts to deepen in colour and turn golden and the vegetables have started to soften. You will really be able to smell the pancetta here as it leeches its flavour and fat through the vegetables.
Add the lentils and stir to thoroughly coat in the oil and combine with the vegetables.
Add the tomatoes, stock, water and celery leaves. Mix well. Drop in the whole piece of cheese rind before covering with the stock and water. Mix well and bring to the boil Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook for about 30 minutes or until the lentils have started to soften but are still holding their shape. A taste test here will help you to see if you have a slightly softened yet still al dente texture in your lentils.
Bring the soup back to the boil and tumble in the pasta. Cook for another 8 – 10 minutes or until the pasta is cooked al dente.
Stir in the parsley leaves before serving. Top with some crumbled fresh ricotta, a small sprig of thyme leaves, dried chilli flakes and a drizzle of peppery extra virgin olive oil if you wish.
A piece of crusty continental bread on the side is almost compulsory.