Zuppa di Pasta e Fagioli
Beans, fagioli, are grown throughout the Italian peninsula and Sicily, with most regions having their favorites. With such a good source of protein so readily available, beans form a substantial part of the traditional Italian diet and you’ll find them served in every way imaginable — raw, stewed, baked, steamed, you name it. As one might expect, each of Italy’s regions adds its own distinctive flair to the many basic recipes and that’s certainly true of today’s recipe.
Now, having said that, I must confess that this dish, Pasta e Fagioli, was never served back in the old two-flat. I’ve no idea why but it just wasn’t part of the Bartolini playbook. So, how did I come to prepare it?
The first Christmas after I moved out of my parent’s home, Zia and Uncle gave me a cookbook, “The Romagnoli’s Table”. It was the first cookbook I owned and it remains a cherished possession. What sets this book apart, aside from how it came to be mine, is that it’s the only one that I’ve found that contains recipes that begin with a battuto, just like so many of the Bartolini recipes from back in the day. (You may recall that battuto is a type of Italian soffritto consisting of onion, parsley, garlic, and salt pork.) Well over a dozen years ago, I followed their recipe to make Pasta e Fagioli for the first time and, though I’ve made a few minor changes along the way, I still follow it today.
Like so many wonderful Italian recipes, this is not a complicated dish to prepare nor are the ingredients hard to find, save one. I’ve mentioned before that “good” salt pork is very hard to find. In fact, I’ve given up the search. Here, I’ve chosen to use guanciale. If you cannot find it, you can substitute pancetta or bacon, just so long as it isn’t smoked. A smoked pork product could very well overpower the dish.
Lastly, you may be wondering why I’ve chosen to share this recipe now, at the beginning of Spring, and not during the dead of Winter. There are two reasons for that. In the first place, it’s the beans. While we can get dried beans year-round, fresh beans are only available in the Summer months. Using them to make Pasta e Fagioli adds a wonderful flavor to the dish and should definitely be tried. Secondly, our friends in the Southern Hemisphere are heading into their cooler months and this dish will be welcomed. For them, I’m right on time.
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Pasta and Beans Recipe
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 small onion
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves
- about 1/4 c fresh parsley
- 2 oz (57 g) guanciale (salt pork, pancetta, or non-smoked bacon may be substituted)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 2 quarts water
- 8 oz (230 g) dried Borlotti beans (See Notes)
- rind from a chunk of Pecorino Romano cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano rind may be substituted)
- 2 cups pasta (see Notes)
- grated Pecorino Romano cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano may be substituted)
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- The night before, place the beans in a container and add enough water to cover them by 3 inches. The next morning, pour off the liquid and rinse. The beans will be ready for use.
- Make the battuto:
- Coarsely chop the onion, celery, garlic, and parsley. Add to the guanciale.
- Heat the blade of a very sharp knife using the burner of your stove.
- Once hot, begin chopping the mixture of meat and vegetables. Keep chopping/dicing/mincing until a relatively smooth paste results.
- Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot.
- Add battuto and sauté until very lightly browned and fragrant.
- Add the tomatoes and continue to cook for a few minutes until they begin to soften.
- Add the water, beans, and cheese rind, raise the heat to med-high, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium and cook until beans are softened and thoroughly heated. (See Beans)
- Add the raw pasta and continue to cook until done. Stir frequently to prevent scorching.
- Add hot water if too thick.
- Taste and season with salt & pepper, as needed.
- Remove the cheese rind and discard.
- Serve immediately, garnished with grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
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Beans can be purchased 3 ways.
- Canned only require rinsing before use. In this recipe, they will only need to be thoroughly heated as they are already soft.
- Fresh can be added to the pot as you would canned beans. They should be cooked within 20 to 30 minutes.
- Dried beans can be prepared in two ways. No matter which method you choose, they will take about 90 minutes to cook.
- Place the beans in a large bowl and add enough water to cover by about 3 inches. Leave overnight, When ready, rinse before using in the recipe. Alternately,
- Place dried beans in a pot with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, simmer for 2 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Beans will be ready in one hour. Drain before use.
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Pssst. Don’t tell Zia that I used a mini-chopper to prepare the battuto.
Because this battuto uses celery, it is a far lighter shade than normal.
I used Borlotti beans in this recipe. You may know them as Roman or cranberry beans. You could, also, use red, kidney, or even cannellini beans, if you like. In short, use whichever beans are available. No Nonna is going to run to the store for Borlotti beans when she has cannellini beans in the pantry.
This recipe used 2 cups dried Borlotti beans. 1 can of beans may be substituted or, if you’re lucky enough to find fresh beans, use about 1.5 pounds (680 g).
Water, not stock, is used here because the battuto will add a great deal to the dish, whereas stock may muddle the flavors.
No need to treat the beans gingerly. Those damaged during the cooking process will only serve to thicken the final dish.
Any small pasta, pastina, will work here. I used ditalini here but have even used a combination of small paste.