Stretch Out Your Pasta Sauce With One Earthy Ingredient

It might seem like high grocery prices are here to stay, but a box of dry pasta can be an inflation-busting deal when you're trying to make dinner on a budget. Pretty much every grocery store carries various types of dried noodles, making it inexpensive and easy to stock your pantry. Add a sauce and some grated cheese, and you can make a box or two of pasta last for a few meals. 

A jar of sauce only goes so far, however. If you want to make it go further — or if you want to add more substance to your plate of pasta – consider adding lentils to the sauce. These all-star legumes pair really well with tomatoes and add extra protein, fiber, and bulk to what can be a one-note dinner of pasta and sauce.

Many vegetarians have known for years that lentil bolognese is a hearty, filling dinner that you can make on the cheap. And if you're afraid of how long it takes to cook lentils, don't be. Several varieties of lentils will cook right in your tomato sauce if you add some water and let it simmer. Or if you just can't wait, grab a can of pre-cooked lentils, dump them in the pot, and stir.

Lentils are an inexpensive source of protein and vitamins

Lentils look like tiny disks and are a type of legume that is low in fat, high in protein, and contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. They're incredibly versatile in the kitchen and can be found in recipes from classic lentil soup to lentil-based veggie burgers. Like a lot of legumes, lentils have a mild, earthy flavor that melds well with stronger flavors such as curry, garlic, and especially acidic tomatoes. If you have a few cups of tomato sauce on your hands but wish it was more, all you need to do is add some lentils one of two ways: cooking dried lentils in the sauce, or adding pre-cooked canned lentils. 

If you want to use dried lentils to fill out your sauce, you can add them right to the pot, just be sure to add enough extra water or stock to cook them. Versatile lentils come in several varieties, and they have different cooking requirements. Read and follow package instructions, or do a quick search for the right ratio of lentils to liquid. So for example, if you're adding red lentils, which have a ratio of 1 part lentils to 2 parts water, add ½ cup of lentils and 1 cup of cooking liquid to the pot and let it simmer until the lentils soften. Since you're adding extra ingredients to the sauce, you might want to also add more of any seasonings you used.

Add cooked lentils

Most varieties of dried lentils only take around 15 minutes to cook, but if you really don't have that much time you have another option: using canned, pre-cooked lentils. Most grocery stores carry pre-cooked, canned lentils and you can usually find them in the canned beans aisle. The only prep you need to do before adding cooked lentils to your tomato sauce is to pour them into a colander or fine mesh sieve and rinse them under running water to wash off the canning liquid and extra starch. Then, just add them to the pot with the tomato sauce, stir everything together, and season to taste. Once the lentils are warm, ladle away. 

The biggest drawback of canned lentils is that they'll be a lot softer than if you cooked dried lentils. If texture isn't a big deal, canned lentils are the way to go because it's super easy to open a can and dump them in. If you want more of a defined lentil texture, however, use dried green or brown lentils, which keep their shape even after they've been cooked. If you're not sure which lentils you like best in your pasta sauce, experiment on pasta nights with different varieties.