My mother was endlessly inventive in the kitchen. Married to a guy from Palermo, Sicily, she had to come up with a “primo” for dinner most nights. We didn’t have the traditional meat and two sides on one plate. My dad insisted on our following the typical Italian meal progression: a “primo,” either pasta asciutta (with sauce), soup, or rarely, rice. The meat or fish or frittata (omelette, Italian-style) followed. At the end of dinner, my father peeled and cut up pieces of fruit, which he doled out to us on the tip of his paring knife.
Those primi stick in my mind the most. I always preferred pasta to the second course. Twice a week we had spaghetti or some other pasta with tomato sauce—what most people back then thought was the only way to eat “macaroni.” But in between were pastas with broccoli or cauliflower, either in dry form or as a soup, escarole soup, spaghetti with clams…the list goes on. Having this first course made us less ravenous when the secondo came around, and I’m sure that it helped stretch the food budget, too. And at least once every couple of weeks, pasta e fagioli, which on the U.S. is often rendered in some obsolete dialect as “pasta fazool.”
Pasta e fagioli is the star of this post. It’s cheap, nutritious and can be fun to cook, and is delicious too. The variations can make your head explode. I’m going to tell you how to make my favorite version, which is an adaptation of what I first had one long afternoon, way too long ago.
Some culinary history: Mom usually used kidney beans, specifically canned kidney beans, for pasta e fagioli, because back in the dark ages of American grocery stores, kidney beans were everywhere, mostly to the exclusion of every other bean. Sure there might be navy beans, which are almost tasteless and resemble the canellini bean’s little brother. And you could buy lentils and split peas. But back then, there wasn’t much choice. Angie/Mom made it palatable by injecting a fair amount of garlic and some tomato broth to the mix. If she had some lying around, she’d chop parsley.
Years later, Perugian friends took us to an agriturismo (working farm with restaurant and/or rooms) over the border in foreign Toscana—Tuscany in English. The folks at the Castello di Sorci supplied a multicourse meal with two primi, one of which was an amazing puréed bean soup with homemade tagliolini, or thin homemade egg noodles. This was new to me; I’d never thought to purée the beans for the soup. Back home in New York, I made my own versions, one of which stuck. I love fennel and will sneak it in wherever I can. I did it with the bean soup and found that the addition of the fennel mellowed the soup out. At the same time, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look for it—just like chefs now use anchovies to increase the umami in a dish.
We’re starting to make soups like this as the weather turns cooler. So far this November it hasn’t cooled that much, but with the long nights this soup feels right somehow. You can put it together in 40 minutes or so using canned beans, or plan ahead, soak some good beans overnight and cook them before making soup out of them.
HERE’S THE NON-RECIPE RECIPE. I don’t measure anything, and this soup has endless variations in quantity and what you put into it. The orthodox version is pretty straightforward, though I have no idea whether anyone in Umbria ever purees fennel along with the beans.
You’ll need a package of canellini or borlotti beans. If you can’t find them, navy or kidney beans of whatever color will work. If you’re using dry beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and cook them ahead of time. Otherwise, a couple of cans of white or borlotti (cranberry) beans will work.
A bulb of fennel—if you can’t find or don’t like fennel, you can use celery
2-4 cloves of garlic
Tomato paste or a couple of peeled canned whole tomatoes (mainly for color adjustment; otherwise the soup can be way too beige)
Wine to deglaze. Or white vermouth.
Short soup pasta, or broken up spaghetti, or sheets of egg pasta cut into strips or irregular shapes. Quantity is up to you. About a cup works but it really depends on how soupy or solid you want the final version to be.
How to start:
Dice a small head of fennel, saute in good olive oil. Add a diced onion (red, yellow, or white, it doesn’t really matter). Dice a carrot. All of this doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re going to purée this toward the end. Add 2-4 smashed garlic cloves, and, optional, a pinch of hot pepper flakes or a little hot pepper—what we call “peperoncino” in Italian. Get the vegetables past soft and translucent; you’ll want a bit of golden color because it will taste better.
Add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth and get all the toasty bits off the pot. Add a squeeze of tomato paste or a peeled tomato or two. Add two liters/quarts of low salt vegetable stock or water. Add the cooked/canned beans. Bring to a boil and then let it settle into a simmer. At this point you’ll want the flavors to come together, so let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée until smooth. You can keep some beans out and leave them whole if you want. It’s your soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a normal standalone blender or even a food processor will work.
Turn the heat back on. Add pasta. There are two schools of thought here. I’ll usually cook the pasta in the soup, but a lot of people will cook it separately and then bring the pasta and soup together just before serving. Cook the pasta until just before being al dente–it will continue cooking as you serve it.
Serve the soup in bowls, drizzle good olive oil on top.
Possible additions: Greens. You can even just tear some rucola (arugula) up and it will wilt in the bowl and give the soup a peppery note. Finely chopped Tuscan (black) kale, escarole, or chicory are good additions.A pinch of red pepper flakes or chili oil will satisfy those who like things spicy.
You can also choose not to purée the soup. In that case, make sure you dice the supporting cast of vegetables finely and uniformly; it’s all got to fit on a spoon. Or you can ease up on the water or broth and make the dish semi-solid.
Photo at top of page: Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom