I feel like I’ve rediscovered an old friend who is doing better than ever.
It’s funny how foods come and go out of fashion. Raspberry vinaigrette, baked brie and Chicken Marbella were all part of the food scene when I first was discovering good food. Pasta Fazool didn’t seem chic but you did hear about it and for me it seemed like a dish to enjoy when visiting Italian-Americans.
1. Pasta e Fagioli is a Simple Dish
The recipe may seem complicated but you basically make a soffritto of onion, garlic, celery and carrot and saute it until well softened. Pancetta, which is like an unsmoked bacon, is wonderful and traditional. You can use bacon or you can skip this altogether and still have a great dish. Check the seasonings and when your “soup” is where you like it, you add cooked pasta (which should be cooked just a heartbeat ahead of al dente) and the cooked beans. Some cook the pasta in the soup but I think the pasta absorbs too much of the good bean broth. If you are using inferior pasta, this might be a good idea, but if you are cooking with the good stuff, make sure it tastes like pasta. Whatever technique, that’s about it and you can improvise from there. Grated dry cheese at the end seems a wise constant.
2. Mashing the Beans Isn’t Mandatory
Most recipes seem to advise you to mash at least half of the beans to make a thick, creamy sauce. With expert hands, excellent al dente pasta and fabulous beans, this can be exceptional. It can also be thick and stodgy and fine for a few bites before it becomes monotonous. If you’re using heirloom beans that exude a good bean broth, like Cranberrys or Botlotti, in particular, the sauteed aromatic vegetables and pancetta mixed with that broth make something you really don’t want to mess with. The beans themselves compliment the cooked pasta and the little chunks of pancetta all make for a wonderful texture and flavor combination. I’m in the thin broth camp because of this.
3. It’s Better to Wait a Bit
I’m sure science can explain it but you want to eat this while warm but it’s distinctly superior after resting for five or ten minutes. This might be a good justification for a clay pot that can keep things warm gently for quite some time. So my advice is gather everyone to the table, bring a big pot of Pasta e Fagioli and place it on a trivet and pass plate and silverware around casually. The smell will make you want to dig in immediately but tell some jokes (I hear beans can be the butt of these jokes, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know!), pass the wine and make sure everyone’s comfortable before ladling out the food.
4. Improvise With What You’ve Got
You can also just ignore all the advice. I had some leftover white beans and broth and leftover pasta. Add good olive oil and some pepper and call it dinner.
5. The Leftovers Are O.K., Not Great
Leftovers are tricky. The pasta will continue to absorb the liquid and you’ll often have a very dry dish. Some prefer it not so soupy but I think it’s better in lots of good liquid. You can add stock while reheating to bring back the original dish. Again, leftovers are exactly why you need good pasta. Inferior pasta will disolve with too much cooking and fussing. I’ve found Baia Pasta is still very good the next day. It’s not as wonderful as when you make the dish but you don’t have “wheat pudding” as you would with an inferior brand.
Speaking of leftovers, I had the bright idea to put some in a casserole and then top it with olive oil-tossed breadcrumbs. It was O.K. I would add more liquid next time and probably make it more indulgent by adding more cheese. But it looked pretty and was worth experimenting over.
6. The One Essential Ingredient Everyone Seems to Forget
It’s beautiful, delicious and just about perfection in a bowl. I made this with friends the other night and as we were going for thirds, a little light bulb went off in my head, probably influenced by my love of Mexican food. I ran back to the kitchen to quarter two lemons I had and passed them around. It was like the moment in the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Man when God reached over and touches fingers Adam who was seemingly relaxing in a chaise lounge. Rockets went off and you could hear the Hallelujah chorus. The only thing the richness lacked was a touch of acid. Now the dish was perfect and I’m itching to make it again. And again.
Want more? Our ebooklet The Pasta e Fagioli Manifesto is available. You can download it for free, here.