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Southern comfort

Pasta and lentils, and spinach with garlic and olive oil.
Pasta and lentils, and spinach with garlic and olive oil. Photo: Graham Tidy

Today's recipe for pasta and lentils is a simple and tasty dish from the south of Italy. It is rather like a thick and comforting Italian soup.

The lentil sauce recipe is a handy one to know as it can be made from ingredients you are likely to have in the pantry. It can be served with either pasta or rice, or you could have it as a side dish with other things.

Lentils are nutritious and cheap and an excellent food for us to include in our diet. I used the Australian-grown small brown Matilda lentils, but any kind of small whole lentils will do. Try to use good-quality pasta that will remain firm in the lentil sauce. It is best to add the pasta to the lentils just before serving. To accompany this dish, I suggest English spinach with garlic and olive oil. This is a truly sensational way to serve spinach.

PASTA WITH LENTILS

Serves 6

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

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1 cup (300g) small brown lentils or Puy-style lentils

4 cups water

2 bay leaves

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 stick of celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

pinch chilli flakes

1 sprig rosemary or 2 sprigs thyme

1 x 400g can of tomatoes including juice, chopped

250g small tubular pasta (ditalini)

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

freshly grated pecorino cheese to serve (optional)

Check the lentils and remove debris, then rinse. Place the lentils in a saucepan with three cups of water and the bay leaves (no salt); bring to the boil then simmer partially covered until tender, about 30 minutes. Season the lentils with salt towards the end of cooking time. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile make the tomato sauce. The vegetables need to be quite finely chopped, which can be done in a food processor.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan with the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, chilli flakes, chopped rosemary or thyme, salt and pepper. Partly cover and sweat for 10 minutes until soft, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped tomatoes and water from rinsing the can and simmer for 15 minutes. Tip the drained lentils into the tomato sauce with a cup of water and simmer together for 10 to 15 minutes. Add more water if necessary. Taste and season well. The sauce can be kept in the fridge or freezer until needed.

Close to serving, bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add plenty of salt, then throw in the pasta and stir. Cook until al dente or for slightly less time than suggested on the packet. Drain the pasta and tip into the hot lentil sauce and mix through. Stir in the chopped parsley and remaining olive oil. Serve straight away in warmed bowls with a grating of pecorino cheese if you wish.

Variation with rice

Bring two cups of vegetable stock to the boil. Stir in one cup of arborio rice and return to the boil. Cover the pan, turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes until the rice is tender and the stock absorbed. Stir the rice into the lentil sauce and add parsley, olive oil and a generous tablespoon of parmesan or pecorino cheese. Alternatively, the rice (and stock) can be cooked with the lentil sauce, which will take about 20 minutes.

SPINACH WITH GARLIC

Serves 4

2 bunches English spinach

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or sliced

2-3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon (optional)

Trim stalks from the spinach and wash the leaves twice. Wilt the spinach in a fairly hot frypan (two minutes). Remove and drain off as much liquid as you can. Just before serving, gently heat the olive oil and garlic in the pan until the garlic is beginning to colour. Add the spinach and turn for a few minutes to coat the leaves. Season and serve. The spinach is also good with a squeeze of lemon, if that works with the rest of the meal.

Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer, dlampe@bigpond.net.au

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