Three simple, hearty Italian one-pot pasta recipes

One-pot pasta and black-eyed beans.
One-pot pasta and black-eyed beans. Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post

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, pumpkin) feature prominently.

"If you mention pasta e patate to an Italian, any Italian, it's like Proust and his madeleines," said Maureen Fant, co-author 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. Minestre 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 flavour 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. There is a version combining pasta and fagiolini dell'occhio, or black-eyed beans, begun with a saute of onion, black pepper and parsley stems, darkened with just enough tomato paste to press the other flavours forward, like an underline, or an exclamation point. And there is a deeply comforting creamy bowl of pasta, potatoes and cauliflower inspired by the classic pasta e patate, which, for those who are 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.

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Each resonates with the tenor of its main ingredients. At the same time, the backdrop of uncomplicated flavours 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 – how black pepper frames the lentils differently than earthy red chilli, or the way different herbs (rosemary or parsley, say) buoy or deflect the sweetness of the black-eyed beans.

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.

All 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 flavours to settle. We could all use such grounding moments.

Pasta and lentils (pasta e lenticchie). One-pot recipes for Good Food.

Pasta and lentils: simple as they come, and as soul-buffering. Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post

Pasta and Lentils (Pasta e Lenticchie)

Although much of the appeal of this Italian dish is its simplicity, seasonal embellishments can be delicious, if untraditional. Consider adding pencil-thin asparagus, cut into 2.5cm pieces, in spring, or a chopped ripe tomato in summer, added in the last few minutes of cooking. You can also vary the herbs. Because there are so few components, use the best-quality olive oil you can.

The dish – technically a thick soup – may be prepared as soupier than pictured above; adjust the liquid to suit your taste. The recipe is also easily halved or quartered, although depending on the size of your pot, you may need to use more water.

This is best made right before serving, but leftovers may be reheated in a heavy pot over low heat or in a 175C oven in a covered casserole dish. The pasta will have absorbed most of the liquid, so add only enough water to make the dish a little soupy, taste again for seasoning, and stir periodically as it heats through.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup dried brown lentils

6 cups water, or more as needed

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 small dried arbol chilli, broken into pieces, or ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes or chilli flakes, or to taste

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

1½ tsp sea salt, or more as needed

340g dried pasta, preferably a small shape such as orecchiette or cavatelli; or break spaghetti into 2.5cm pieces

2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

METHOD

Pour the lentils into a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven and add the water (to cover); bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.

Uncover; stir in the garlic, chilli de arbol pieces and the oil, then cover and cook for 5 minutes.

Stir in the salt and the pasta, cover and cook until al dente, stirring regularly to keep the pasta from sticking and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a minimum of bubbling. Depending on the pasta variety, the cooking time may take about 5 minutes longer than indicated on the package, so begin tasting the pasta once the suggested cooking time has elapsed. Continue tasting every minute or two until it is cooked through but still firm. The resulting dish should resemble a thick soup; if the mixture seems too dry, add a little water to reach the desired texture, keeping in mind the pasta will continue to absorb liquid as it cools.

Once the pasta is done, add the thyme. Taste and add more salt, as needed. Cover and let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 minutes, then uncover and drizzle with a little more oil just before serving, if desired.

Serves 4

Pasta, potatoes and cauliflower. Pasta and lentil one-pot recipes.

Double-starch: creamy pasta, potatoes and cauliflower. Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post

Pasta, potatoes and cauliflower

This pasta is a lighter take on a particular style of the classic pasta e patate – a dish of pasta with potatoes that appears in variations throughout Italy – in which the potatoes break down partially or completely into a creamy sauce. Here, cauliflower takes the place of some of the potatoes for a dish that is still hearty but not quite so rib-sticking.

The recipe is easily halved or quartered, although depending on the size of your pot, you may need to use more water proportionally.

This dish is best made right before serving, but leftovers may be reheated in a heavy pot over low heat or in a 175C oven in a covered casserole dish. The pasta will have absorbed most of the liquid, so add only enough water to make the dish a little soupy, taste again for seasoning, and stir periodically as it heats through.

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes or chilli flakes, or to taste

½ small head cauliflower (about 225g), florets and stems cut into bite-size pieces (about 2 cups)

225g yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm chunks

5 cups water, plus more as needed

1½ tsp fine sea salt, or more as needed

340g dried pasta, preferably a small shape such as orecchiette or cavatelli

⅓ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (from 15 to 20 sprigs)

METHOD

Heat the oil in a large, heavy, wide-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the garlic is golden and fragrant but has not browned. Stir in the cauliflower and potatoes until evenly coated, then cook for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the water and salt; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 10 minutes, so the cauliflower softens a bit.

Stir in the pasta; cook until al dente, stirring regularly to keep the pasta from sticking and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a minimum of bubbling. Depending on the pasta variety, the cooking time may take about 5 minutes longer than indicated on the package, so begin tasting the pasta once the suggested cooking time has elapsed. After about 10 minutes, the potatoes and the cauliflower should have begun to fall apart; use the back of a spoon to mash any large bits against the side of the pot to break them apart into the sauce. You can leave as much or little texture as you like.

The resulting dish should be thick; if the mixture seems too dry, add a little water to reach the desired texture, keeping in mind the pasta will continue to absorb liquid as it cools. Once the pasta is cooked through but still firm, add the parsley. Taste and add more salt and/or red pepper flakes or chilli flakes, as needed. Cover and let the pasta rest for 2 to 3 minutes before serving.

Serves 4

Pasta and black-eyed beans

Black-eyed beans (also known as black-eyed peas) are cooked throughout Italy. They may be prepared simply or combined with other vegetables, rice or pasta. Here, the pasta is added to the beans once they are tender, to cook in the same pot. Celery and parsley brighten the delicate, earthy flavour of the legumes, but other herbs can be used instead, such as rosemary or marjoram.

The resulting dish may be prepared as soupier than what is pictured; adjust the liquid to suit your taste. The recipe is easily halved or quartered, although depending on the size of your pot, you may need to use more water.

Note: The black-eyed peas need to soak for 4 to 8 hours.

INGREDIENTS

225g dried black-eyed beans

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small brown onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

10 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped and stems finely chopped (separately)

3 tsp plus 1 tsp tomato paste

5 cups water, or more as needed

1½ tsp fine sea salt, or more as needed

340g dried pasta, preferably a small shape such as orecchiette or cavatelli

¼ cup celery leaves, chopped

½ lemon, for serving (optional)

METHOD

Pour the black-eyed peas into a mixing bowl and cover with cool water by 2 inches. Soak for 4 to 8 hours, then drain and rinse.

Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion; cook for about 5 minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic, pepper and parsley stems; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then stir in the tomato paste until evenly distributed. Add the drained black-eyed peas, stirring to incorporate.

Pour in the water, then cover, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, until the peas are barely tender.

Add the salt and the pasta, cover and cook until al dente, stirring regularly to keep the pasta from sticking and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a minimum of bubbling. Depending on the pasta variety, the cooking time may take about 5 minutes longer than indicated on the package, so begin tasting the pasta when the suggested cooking time has elapsed, and continue tasting every minute until it is cooked through but still firm.

The resulting dish should resemble a very thick soup, and the sauce should coat the pasta in a thick gloss. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little water to reach the desired texture, keeping in mind the pasta will continue to absorb liquid as it cools. Once the pasta is cooked through but still firm, add the celery and parsley leaves, taste for seasoning, cover and let the pasta rest for 2 to 3 minutes.

Just before serving, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, if desired.

Serves 4

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