Lentils and pasta are a traditional pairing in Italian cooking, and most of the regions in the southern part of the boot enjoy pasta con lenticchie in some form, usually in soups. In this dish, which I was served in Basilicata, the lentils were cooked with other vegetables into a sauce that served as a delicious dressing for rigatoni. It was excellent that way, this sauce seems to me even more delightful as a dressing for whole-wheat or barley pasta.
1 cup small lentils
⅓ cup carrot, cut in 1/4-inch dice
⅓ cup celery , cut in 1/4-inch dice
2 fresh bay leaves
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
½ teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste
3 cups Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marazano, crushed by hand
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound rigatoni, or other pasta
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 cup pecorino, freshly grated, plus more for passing
A heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet;
Rinse the lentils, and put them in the saucepan with the diced carrot and celery, the bay leaves, and 3 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, cover the pan, and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle, steady simmer. Cook until the lentils are just tender, about 25 minutes (or longer, depending on size).
When the lentils are almost cooked, pour the olive oil into the large skillet, and set it over medium- high heat. Scatter in the garlic slices, and cook for a minute or two, until sizzling and starting to color; sprinkle the peperoncino onto the pan bottom to toast as the garlic sizzles. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, slosh out the can with a cup of cold water, pour that into the skillet, stir well, and bring to the boil. Simmer the sauce for 5 minutes or so, just to thicken up a bit.
When the lentils are tender, pour them into the skillet with the tomatoes, season with the salt, stir everything together, and heat the sauce to a bubbling simmer. Cook for 25 minutes or so, until the lentils are quite tender and the sauce has thickened to a consistency you like for dressing pasta. If you're going to cook the pasta right away, keep the sauce at a bare simmer. For later use, let it cool, then refrigerate. (If it thickens after cooling, loosen it with pasta water when you reheat it.)
To cook the rigatoni or other pasta: Fill the big pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. Stir in the pasta, and cook it until barely al dente. Scoop the rigatoni from the water, let drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet of sauce, simmering over low heat. Toss together for a minute or two, until the rigatoni is evenly dressed and perfectly al dente.
Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the chopped parsley and a cup of grated cheese, and toss well. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, toss again, and serve immediately in warm bowls, with more cheese at the table.