When my friend Deb. Mele posted a recipe for Lentil Bolognese I have to say, it got my attention! I’m always on the lookout for interesting pasta sauces and vegetarian meals. I’m that woman who stuffs Castelluccio lentils into her luggage when packing to come home from Italy. Castelluccio lentils are grown in Umbria and are tiny, brownish jewels with a delicate flavor and a wonderfully tender texture. And like Lentil du Puy, they don’t disintegrate in cooking, which makes them ideal for salads. This is my version of Deb’s. recipe! You may not be able to get your hands on Castelluccio lentils, if not, substitute other Italian lentils. There are some nice ones from Puglia available. When my FB friend, Roz saw the photo I put up she commented that it looked so darned good that she wanted me to put up the recipe on “Italian Culture & Cuisine” a group she runs that I belong to. The recipe here is a mash up of Deb’s, Lidia Bastianich’s and me.
Enough Ragu for 1 Lb. Rigatoni
Precook the Lentils:
1 cup Castelluccio lentils, picked over for any debris or stones, if Umbrian lentils are unavailable, substitute Lentil du Puy
1/3 cup each carrots & celery cut into small dice
Make the Sauce:
1/3 cup diced onions
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 bay leaves, fresh if you have them
5 Tbsp. EVOO
¼ – ½ tsp. Peperoncino, or to taste (chili flakes)
½ cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 ½ cups tinned Italian plum tomatoes, diced, crushed by hand, not in the processor
1 – 2 tsp. sea or kosher salt
1 lb. Rigatoni or other tubular shaped pasta
To Dress the Pasta:
5 – 6 leaves Fresh basil, torn or shredded
2 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
½ – 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese
Place the lentils in a sieve, rinse well with cold water. Place them in a medium sized pot with the celery and carrots. Add 3 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to simmer, cover, cook for 15 – 25 minutes depending on the lentils, or until they are just tender.
Meanwhile, over medium-low heat saute the onions until softened. Add the garlic slices and continue cooking until they colour lightly. Move the onions and garlic aside, add the tomato paste, stirring for a minute or so. Now add the Peperoncino, stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the white wine and boil until slightly reduced; add the tomatoes, simmering the mixture until slightly thickened.
Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking liquid. Add them to the pan with the tomatoes, season with some salt, keeping in mind that the sauce will reduce somewhat. Simmer the ragu, uncovered, for approximately 25 minutes or until it’s the consistency you like for dressing pasta. If it’s a bit too thick, add a few tablespoons of the lentil cooking water. Adjust the seasonings if necessary. Keep the sauce warm.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon or so of salt, add the pasta, stirring for a few seconds. Cook the pasta until al dente. When the pasta is al dente, reserve some of the cooking water and drain. If you have a pasta scoop, simply scoop the pasta straight into the sauce.
Tip: I discovered pasta scoops in the Rome apartment we renting. It was something I had to have! I found mine at an Italian shop. It’s come in useful for lots of things!
While the pasta is cooking, warm a large serving bowl on low heat in the oven or in a warming drawer.
Add the pasta to the lentil ragu and toss, coating them with the sauce. If things appear too dry, add a bit of the pasta cooking water. Remove from the heat; add the cheese, tossing well then add the fresh basil leaves and parsley; giving things a good toss. Place in the warmed serving bowl; drizzle with a couple of tablespoons of EVOO and serve immediately, passing more Pecorino cheese.