Pasta e fagioli makes the most of its stars -- pasta and beans
"When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that's amore."
-- "That's Amore" by Harry Warren and Jack Brooks (popularized by Dean Martin)
There are as many pasta e fagioli recipes as there are Italian nonnas.
For a pretty basic dish -- beans, pasta, broth -- the varieties are endless. Cannellini beans or red kidney? Campanelle, ditalini or plain old shells? Ground beef, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage or no meat at all? Tomatoes or not? Soupy or thick?
From region to region -- even kitchen to kitchen -- this simple peasant soup is a blank canvas with the only two necessities being beans and pasta.
The rest is up to you.
So while I'm not Italian and I'm not a grandmother, I have tried my share of Pasta e Fagioli recipes over the years, and I have a few overall tips including:
• If leftovers are part of your routine, I highly suggest cooking the pasta separately and adding it in as you serve it. Even really good pasta keeps absorbing the liquid and gets pretty soggy after a day or two.
• The same goes if you are freezing your leftovers. Keep the "sauce" separate from the pasta when you pop it into the freezer. Or freeze the soup (without the pasta) and add fresh pasta when you are reheating.
• Try tossing in a Parmesan cheese rind. I like to freeze rinds when I am done using them and pop them into soup after it starts boiling. (Just remember to remove the rind when serving.) This infuses a delicious creaminess to the dish.
• This dish can get very thick, very fast. If you like it more on the soupy side, add water. You can even reserve a cup or two of the pasta water and use that.
• Some recipes call for mashing some of the beans to make the soup creamier. I personally don't think the step is necessary but, by all means, experiment.
• Lemon juice can be your best friend. Pasta e Fagioli -- like many thicker soups -- sometimes suffers from a lack of acidity. Adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or grated lemon zest will help brighten the soup. It's one of those tiny additions that can make a world of difference.
• Fresh herbs versus dried? I like fresh rosemary and thyme in this dish. Sometimes I mince it, and sometimes I put it uncut in cheesecloth. Your choice.
What follows is a super-easy version of the dish using canned beans that you can get on the table quickly. It may not be nonna's favorite, but it will do in a pinch and will give you a head start in terms of creating your own favorite version of this Italian classic.
Super Easy Pasta e Fagioli
1/3 pound small tube pasta
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 thick slices pancetta, diced (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (or a few shakes of dried rosemary)
1 tablespoon minced thyme (or a few shakes of dried thyme)
2 dried bay leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 small carrots, finely chopped
4 ribs celery, finely chopped
6 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, or small white beans, drained
6 cups stock (chicken or veggie)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated Parmigiano or Romano, for the table
In a large soup pot over medium heat, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just short of al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water and set aside. Wipe out the pot and heat to medium-high heat. Add olive oil and pancetta. Brown pancetta slightly and add the herbs, chopped vegetables and garlic. Let soften slightly. Season with salt and pepper. Add beans and stock to the pot. Bring to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente. Off heat, stir in the lemon juice. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve with grated cheese.
*If soup is too thick, just add water.
• M. Eileen Brown is the Daily Herald's director of strategic marketing and innovation and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.