There’s a scene in the 1996 movie Big Night (directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci) where Primo (played by Tony Shalhoub) complains to Secondo (Stanley Tucci) that a customer’s request for spaghetti with risotto makes no sense. “Starch with starch??!?” he exclaims incredulously. It’s a cardinal sin, one of the things you Just Do Not Do, in Italian cuisine. Pasta, gnocchi or risotto, all of which are usually served as a separate course or introduction to a meal (as a primo for example), would never be served as a side dish.
Of course, when you’re talking about the pairing of starch with pasta such as the one below, that is something else altogether.
A word on two terms that appear in the recipe:
Battuto literally translates to “whacked” and is a mixture of various chopped fresh herbs and flavorings that, when sautéed, becomes the soffritto central to the seasoning of many Italian dishes. Depending on what is being cooked, a battuto might include onion, carrot, celery, celery leaves, garlic, parsley, leeks, lard, ham and even pancetta (unsmoked slab bacon). Onion will generally be the most abundant element in a battuto, while celery and carrot should be roughly one-half to two-thirds in volume by comparison. Too much celery will make the dish taste too herbal, while too much carrot will increase its sweetness. Keep in mind that while a battuto is an essential component of the sauce (and indeed, several Italian preparations), its presence should not be dominant.
A battuto, after it has been sautéed gently in butter or olive oil (or sometimes both), becomes a soffritto. The soffritto is responsible for the flavor of many Italian dishes and should be cooked with care before other ingredients are added. In particular, the onion must be translucent and thoroughly cooked, or the taste of raw onion might come through. Be careful, however, not to let the soffritto burn, as this can affect the color of the finished dish.
Penne con Le Lenticchie — “Penne with Lentils”
1 onion, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
2 celery stalks, trimmed and finely chopped (include the leaves)
1 large carrot, peeled and trimmed, and finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
a pinch of sea salt + more to taste
a pinch of freshly milled black pepper + more to taste
2 bay leaves
1 cup cooked lentils
2 cups crushed San Marzano tomatoes
2 cups water
extra-virgin olive oil (for garnish, optional)
chopped Italian parsley (for garnish, optional)
freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese (for garnish, optional)
A note on the lentils: You can use lentils that were cooked with onion, celery and carrot (from scratch) or canned. If I cook them from scratch, sometimes if I’m feeling extravagant, I’ll thrown in a couple of bottles of Evian spring water instead of regular water. As it happens, when I made the version that’s pictured, I used canned lentils as I was short on time. On the downside, I find that there is a “clean” taste that’s missing when I use canned lentils; this comes at the cost of convenience. Either way, it’s delicious, just ‘different’. There is no right or wrong about it.
Begin with a battuto (onion, carrot, celery, celery leaves) cooked in olive oil over low heat in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. How soft you like it depends on how much time you have. Low and slow is the way to go. This will take at least half an hour, but if you’re short on time, then that’s okay too. Be careful not to let the battuto (or the resulting soffritto) burn, or you may find that the resulting sauce has a bitter undertone. You might have to stir occasionally to prevent the vegetables from scorching.
In the picture below, you see a soffritto in progress which consists of 1 onion, 1 carrot and 2 celery stalks, all chopped up fine and cooked in a combination of 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and 6 tablespoons olive oil. At the point this picture was taken, the soffritto had been cooked for over 10 minutes on low heat; it still has a ways to go before I add the rest of the ingredients. (This is for an upcoming post, on lentil and escarole ragoût.)
A battuto can indeed contain garlic. If you choose to use garlic, be sure to add the garlic after you have begun the battuto with the onion, carrot and celery. If you add the garlic first, it will probably color and burn (since garlic has a shorter cooking time than the other aromatic vegetables), and may negatively affect the final outcome. If you time it properly, garlic can add a touch of mellow sweetness and elevate a soffritto.
Once the vegetables are softened to your liking, add the bay leaves, oregano, a pinch each of sea salt and freshly milled black pepper, and the cooked lentils. Stir once or twice, then add the crushed tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and partly cover. Let that cook for an hour or until the sauce has thickened slightly. Taste for salt and pepper once more, then serve over cooked pasta. A little extra-virgin olive oil, Italian parsley and freshly grated pecorino cheese does wonders.
Time: About 2 hours, including prep. If you elect to cook the lentils from scratch, it will be about 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Note: As written and pictured, the recipe is NOT vegan and gluten-free (so this post will not be tagged as such). However, you can elect to make it vegan and/or gluten-free quite easily by using a soy cheese substitute and gluten-free pasta.