At least once a week, someone in our household puts a small Dutch oven on the stove and covers the bottom with a heap of lentils. We go through this exercise so often that the steps — simmering aromatics and oil in a simple broth, adding pasta to cook until it just yields to the teeth — have become methodical, even meditative. It’s a soup, but only barely a soup: The pasta wears the broth like a sauce. By the time we ladle it into bowls, we are already grateful.
We are also late to the party. This understated combination of pasta and lentils, or pasta e lenticchie, has been a staple of kitchens throughout Italy for centuries, prepared in variation according to regional and personal tendencies. It is part of a vast repertoire of thick, hearty, pasta-based minestre, or soups, in which legumes (chickpeas, favas, cannellini, lentils and borlotti are among the most common) and other starchy vegetables (potatoes, winter squash) figure prominently.
“If you mention pasta e patate to an Italian, any Italian, it’s like Proust and his madeleines,” said Maureen Fant, co-author with Oretta Zanini de Vita of “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way.”
The English translation for minestra is imperfect. In “Sauces & Shapes,” Fant writes, “The line between pastasciutta, pasta dressed with a sauce, and zuppa or minestra, soup, is not straight. Sometimes a cup or two of water, added or boiled away, is all it takes to turn one into the other.”
A minestra may be soupy, thick or nearly dry, but it will always be served with a spoon, Fant said. Minestra also typically feature pasta, potatoes or rice, whereas zuppe generally incorporate bread.
What endears me to these dishes (beyond how easily they come together, and how little cookware they leave behind) is the dimension they create as they cook, the way the main ingredients are both here (in tender, sometimes broken-down bits) and there, creating the very foundation for everything else in the bowl.
But second, they are a delicious illustration of how the starch from grains or vegetables can be harnessed to create a fullness of texture and flavor in plant-based dishes, particularly soupy or brothy ones. This might be a little rice or cornmeal, a few potatoes or stale bread. It might, in some pasta preparations, be the starch-thickened water left after the pasta has finished boiling, ladled out in the final moments to add body to a simple sauce. Here, because in many cases the pasta cooks in the soup itself, its starch thickens and enriches the broth, which, depending on the amount of water and the other ingredients, might take on a satiny gloss, or go very nearly creamy.
My go-to takes on these dishes are a kind of variation on a theme. There is my variation on pasta and lentils, seasoned modestly with a few aromatics added directly to the broth, including a late dash of crushed thyme. It is as simple as they come, and as soul-buffering. And there is a deeply comforting creamy bowl of pasta, potatoes and cauliflower inspired by the classic pasta e patate, which, for Americans quick to balk at double-starch applications, is both a compromise and a gateway. It is also sure to provoke Italian traditionalists, but is delicious nonetheless.
Each resonates with the tenor of its main ingredients. At the same time, the backdrop of uncomplicated flavors means that a single seasoning edit can invoke a dramatic change in tone. If you make a habit of these preparations, it can be a joy to revel in the shifts that happen by way of the tiniest adjustments —such as how fruity black pepper frames the lentils differently than earthy red chile.
The liquid amounts called for reflect my own hunger tendencies, toward a dish only barely requiring a spoon, the soup clinging to the pasta like a coat. Consider them suggestions; if you prefer something truly soupy or, on the other end, that will hold a spoon upright, adjust to your liking.
Both of these dishes wait (albeit not too long), something most pasta dishes never do, allowing a grace period for setting the table and calling everyone to dinner. They are better, in fact, for a few minutes in which to collect themselves, for their texture and flavors to settle. We could all use such grounding moments.