I have been asked from a number of my friends to replicate a blog post about pasta e fagioli. This morning I bumped into a lovely young lady at the farmer’s market who was wondering about how to fix cranberry beans…I realized I didn’t have the recipe on my wordpress blog, so here it goes!
Pasta e Fagioli
The humble cranberry bean reigns supreme in Italian cooking especially in the classic Pasta e Fagioli alla Veneziana. Not to be confused with the pinto bean, which has a different taste, texture, and darker color, cranberry beans have a special quality that makes them highly sought after. When cooked, they are much larger than the dried variety and provide more beanlike creaminess to the dish. They are difficult to find, so you can imagine my joy when they appear at the Davis Farmers Market at the beginning of summer! Only one vendor sells them and for a short period of time between the beginning of August to the beginning of September. With this small window of time in mind, I buy five, six pounds at a time and start freezing them so I have enough to carry me through the winter. Each bean is unique. When you open the pod, you may find pearly white beans with a few delicate striated red marks on them, or you may find entirely red ones. Holding them in your hand they are smooth and pearly. You will find them in an astonishing variety of preparations – some unusual – such as calamari and fagioli, or short pasta such as farfalle with a sauce made with beans and zucchini. Sounds strange, but it does work! I love them cooked in a tomato sauce with sausage served over polenta. The most classic dish, of course, is Pasta e Fagioli, the queen of soups – la regina delle minestre, whose origin is from the region of Veneto where my mother’s family originated. Pasta e fasioi as I heard my mother call it in Venetian dialect, is a simple, hearty soup whose greatness relies on the beautiful texture and creaminess of the cranberry bean.The recipe I have to offer has several options because Pasta e Fagioli, like many Italian dishes, is homegrown – every home cook has a special variation depending on the ingredients at hand. I hardly ever make it the same way every time, depending on my mood!
3 lbs. cranberry beans (fresh and unshelled) or 2lbs. dry (soak the night before)
1 medium sized onion or 1-1/2 cups onion
1 carrot (optional)
1-2 stalks celery
½ – ¾ C guanciale or…
cotiche (outside fat of prosciutto or the heel) (optional)
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)
1 Tbl. (or 2 ) tomato concentrate from a tube (optional)
2 quarts chicken stock or 2 dadi (Knorr bouillion cubes) – (optional)
1 cup (or 2-3 handfuls) ditalini pasta (or any small pasta like pennette) or fresh egg pasta such as maltagliati.
1 Tbl. olive oil
1 Tsp. salt
Freshly grated parmigiano or grana gratuggiato to taste
There are two ways to begin – one, a freddo – or cold method, in which you put the shelled and washed fresh or soaked beans in a stockpot with the onion and other ingredients of choice including the potato (but not the pasta!), cover it with water or stock, and let it cook for about an hour or until cooked through, the stock has reduced and beans are tender. This method is fast and produces good results. I often cook this way when I don’t want to spend too much time messing around with the ingredients and I’m short on time.The other day, feeling more patient, I used the other method which begins by sautéing the tris of vegetables in olive oil. The results were, I must say, exceptional!
- Prepare the ingredients. Shell the fresh beans, wash and set them aside. If you are using dry beans, soak them the night before, then drain and rinse them for use. Dice the onion, the carrot, and the celery and set them aside. Sometimes I don’t use carrot and celery – these are optional, but do provide depth of flavor. This time I didn’t use rosemary because I didn’t want an “herby” flavor preferring to enhance the flavor of the bean with no masking.
- In an 12 quart stockpot or enameled cast iron pot, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil, move the chopped onions, carrot, and celery to the pot and saute’ until slightly golden. Add the beans and quickly give them a stir to pick up the flavors of the vegetables.
- Cover the beans with water or chicken stock, about 2-3 quarts. The liquid should cover the beans with about 2 inches to spare. Peel and wash the potato and add it whole to the pot. Bring the pot to a boil and add a tablespoon of tomato concentrate (this is primarily to give some color – not absolutely necessary). Add salt – go easy here if using bouillion cubes and guanciale.
- Optional at this point is the addition of the “meat.” Most often I prefer to go vegetarian, but the most classic preparation of Pasta e Fagioli is the addition of the cotenna, or outer fat or skin of a prosciutto. You can ask for it in the deli section of a good grocer. I sometimes buy the heel of the prosciutto and add it to the pot. This time, not having it, I used a chunk of guanciale or jowl bacon cut in three pieces (about one and a half inch blocks) and added these to the soup.
- Lower the flame and allow the soup to simmer covered for about an hour and a half. From time to time, stir the pot to make sure the beans are not sticking on the bottom. As the cooking comes to the end, the beans are cooked through and tender, take out the potato and place it on a small dish. With the back end of a fork, mash it, maybe adding a little broth to make it smooth, and return it to the pot. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, then add the pasta.
- I add the dry pasta by hand, usually a handful at a time because I don’t want to add too much. Judge it by the amount of liquid you have in the pot. The pasta will absorb quite a bit. This time I had a fresh pasta sheet in the freezer, so I took it out, let it defrost until it was malleable enough to manipulate. I lightly floured the granite workspace and rolled the sheet until it was about an 1/8 of an inch thick. I wanted a little heft to the pasta, giving it a rustic feel. I cut it in long strips and then in diagonal shapes. These are known as maltagliati, meaning “poorly cut”! Add these to the pot, cook them stirring delicately until tender. Fresh pasta will absorb more than the dry; if need be, add a little more water to give the soup a smooth consistency. Correct the seasoning by adding salt if necessary. Cool the soup for about 10 minutes before serving.
- Ladle into bowls with a generous sprinkle of parmigiano. Heavenly…and even better the next day!
Serves 4-6. Pair with a red wine. Buonissimo!