4 servings (makes about 7 cups)
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; 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.
MAKE AHEAD: This is best made right before serving, but leftovers may be reheated in a heavy pot over low heat or in a 350-degree oven in a covered casserole. 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.
1 cup dried brown lentils
6 cups water, or more as needed
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small dried chilli pepper, broken into pieces, or 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more as needed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, or more as needed
350g dried pasta, preferably a small shape such as gnocchette, ditalini, orecchiette or cavatelli; or break spaghetti into 3cm pieces
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
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 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.