When Louis Prima sang about pasta fazool in his famous song, he was in awe of the (questionable) money making abilities of Luigi. ” He sang, “Now he can buy the caviar, he’s through with pasta fazool.” In the end, Luigi went to jail, so the moral of the story is crime does not pay – and the implication is that pasta e fagioli is a poor man’s meal. But when Dean Martin croons That’s Amore, he sings the praises of the dish, “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool.” I tend to agree with Dean Martin, but I am biased. I had a teenage crush on him and loved to sing along to his record albums. Oh man, now I am really aging myself.
Nevertheless, it is rare for a simple dish to be mentioned with such affection – and to show up in song lyrics as often as it is placed on the table. Pasta e fagioli is a staple of many Italian homes. You can probably find a recipe in just about every Italian cookbook worth its salt. What follows is a recipe I adapted from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Pasta of Italy and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There are many variations on this classic dish, but the basic ingredients are broken pasta, beans, onion, and fresh herbs in a flavorful soup broth. It is a perfect winter soup, and a generous wedge of rustic Italian bread goes really well.
I used Cranberry (borlotti) beans, but you can substitute red kidney beans, which are much more readily available. The dish will still be yummy.
It is always a challenge to create flavor in vegetable based soups and sauces. There are two elements that pack a powerful taste punch. First, I make my own broth. (The canned or boxed broths are okay, but I find them a bit salty and lacking flavor.) Whenever I make a soup or salad and have celery tops or kale ribs I might otherwise throw away, I just put them in a pot of water, add some salt and let it simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. I strain and discard the cooked scraps and pour the broth into jars for later use.
The other flavor creator is the battuto. It is the foundation, the sofrito, the mirepoix of most sauces and soup stocks. It consists of a fat, in this case, olive oil, some aromatic vegetables such as onion, garlic, celery or carrot, and fresh herbs. It is amazing how much umami and succulent flavor is created with these two simple steps.
Pasta and Fagioli
An Italian classic, perfect for a cold winter night.
- 400 grams (2 cups dry cranberry (borlotti) beans – (can substitute red kidney beans) (If using canned beans, use two 12.5 ounce cans)
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2/3 cup chopped tomatoes, either canned or fresh
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 8 cups water or broth (or any combination thereof)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pinch red pepper powder
- 8 ounces of dried spaghetti, bucatini, or fettuccine, broken into 1 inch pieces
- Soak the dry beans in water overnight or for 12 hours minimum.
- To make the battuto: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onion. Stir and saute for 2-3 minutes until onion gets fragrant. Next add the garlic, celery, rosemary, and pinch of red pepper powder. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Cook slowly, stirring often. The vegetables will begin to caramelize and develop flavors. Finally, add the tomatoes and salt and cook for 10 more minutes, uncovered, over low, stirring often.
- Putting it all together: Add the soaked beans and water/broth to the battuto and stir well. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 2 hours until the beans are nice and tender. The dish will be very soupy but will thicken when you add the pasta.
- When the beans are done, add the dried pasta to the soup and stirring occasionally, cook for 15 – 20 minutes until the pasta is al dente or a bit soft, depending how you like it.
That’s it! This is a delicious, hearty dish that will keep your tummy full and keep you warm in the winter. Serve with a healthy wedge of rustic Italian bread and a dish of olive oil for dipping. Buon appetito!