Pasta e Fagioli
Pasta e Fagioli is one of my all time comfort foods. When I worked in downtown New York City many years ago, we would order food from this little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and their pasta e fagioli was out of this world. So when I had the opportunity to meet home cook and food writer Eleonora “Lola” Baldwin from Rome, Italy online, I just had to ask her for her version of this wonderful comfort food.
I just interviewed Lola and if you have any interest in Italian cuisine, their culture and lifestyle, I encourage you to read the interview in its entirety. She is a wonderful writer and has generations of handed down knowledge of Italian cooking. Her own food blog, Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino is filled with stories and recipes dating back to her childhood growing up in Italy to present day. It’s a brilliant read.
Lola was kind enough to send me her recipe for Pasta e Fagioli along with some facts about the dish that I think you will find fascinating. I’m hoping Lola will spend more time on The Reluctant Gourmet web site sharing more stories and recipes from life living in Italy.
Note: After Lola sent me her recipe, I had some questions that she answered and you can read them at the end of the recipe.
Lola’s Pasta e Fagioli
Remember Dean Martin swooning over his “pasta fazool?” This soup is what he meant when he swore it was Amore. Pasta e fagioli – meaning “pasta and beans,” is the traditional meatless bean soup that is now a popular worldwide gourmet item. Like many other Italian favorite recipes, pasta e fagioli was a peasant food dish, due to cheaply available, stomach-filling beans and pasta.
Pasta e fagioli is made using borlotti beans (fat, pulpy medium-sized beans, light beige in color, speckled with dark brown flecks, the nearest equivalent is cranberry or pinto beans) and different types of small thimble-shaped pasta such as tubetti, ditalini or cannolicchi.
The consistency of the dish can vary, some renditions fall clearly in the thick soup category, usually because part of the beans is mashed during preparation to obtain a more creamy texture.
This rather thick life-saver soup is just what you want to engulf when the Fall rain’s mercilessly striking the window panes; and exactly what you need to cook in order to feel safe and warm, happy and engaged inside.
Casca a fagiolo, is the Italian saying that literally describes how something happens just at the right moment. This soup for example.
My Interview with Lola
I asked Lola if she only cooked with dried or fresh beans or if she ever used canned beans and she said,
Sure! I’m no fundamentalist when it comes to cooking beans. I use canned beans freely (provided they be well rinsed of their gelatinous storing gunk), but the healthiest, tastiest and most common beans used in Italian cuisine””and for the best pasta e fagioli””are the dried ones.
Yes, cooking dried beans takes more time than opening a can, but you’ll be richly rewarded with superior flavor and texture. They will keep almost indefinitely, and a well-stocked Italian pantry always has a selection of two or more kinds of dried beans. For quick pasta e fagioli, you can use two 14-oz cans of beans.
What about the pasta? Is it always tubetti? Are there substitutes if tubetti isn’t available?
I’ve made it with broken noodles, fettuccine, mismatched shapes of equal-sized pasta, maltagliati, etc. The key requisite is that the pasta must be small enough to fit in a spoonful along with the beans.
Many American home cooks don’t own a food mill but do have food processors and blenders. Can they be used and if so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using electric appliances?
Electric metal blades whirl so fast that they generate heat, which alters flavors. Plus they cut! That’s why pesto is best made with mortar and pestle. The flavor remains intact. If you really must make pesto with a food processor, remember: short bursts!
I have one too of course, and I use it a lot. But to puree, separating skins from pulp and ricing without rearranging molecular structure… you need a hand powered food mill. It’s an inescapable must in an Italian kitchen!
We all have heard the term al dente and most of us know what it means but I asked Lola to give us her definition of “al dente” and she responded -
This is a matter of immense importance, thank you! Please remove all images of spaghetti flung on kitchen walls to check doneness from your mind. Please.
Pasta should, I correct myself, MUST be cooked al dente. That translates “to the tooth”, meaning it should oppose some kind of debate to our chewing apparatus. Pasta should be firm but not snap in the middle, more importantly it should not be overcooked in mush-like fashion. Soft-boiled pasta is not tolerated in Italy.
Keep in mind that ancient glue and modern children’s play-dough are “as pasta” a mixture water and flour. The word ‘paste’ should ring a bell. We do not want to associate the primadonna of Italian food to any of its inedible adhesive cousins. Overcooking pasta and humiliating it to a mere wallpaper fixative is a sin.
The package will probably say how long the pasta should cook for, but don’t trust it. A couple of minutes before it is supposed to be done, fish out a piece and bite it open; in the center you will see a whitish area of uncooked pasta that is poetically known as the anima, or soul of the pasta. Continue cooking the pasta until the anima barely fades.
Some pasta al dente fundamentalists modify that calculation taking into account altering factors such as water hardness, altitude and lunar cycle. Hard durum wheat vs fresh homemade pasta will need longer cooking times. That can range from 5 to 12 minutes according to shape, section thickness and size. The longest pasta shape to cook is farfalle (bow tie shape); the shortest are spaghetti and all its thinner forms like capelli d’angelo (angel hair).
Don’t break long pasta to fit the pot: it’s un-Italian. The enjoyment of “long goods” is in the twirling. Use a fork to bend and lower it as it cooks until it fits the pot. Boil the pasta in plenty of lightly salted water. And remember to stir occasionally.