Meatless Monday: Gio’s Mama’s Pasta e Fagioli
When we worked together, my friend Gio and I didn’t share recipes, which is a shame, given that his parents are first generation immigrants from Sicily. Messina, to be esatto.
But to be fair, when we met about 12 years ago, Gio was fresh out of school, a single guy in his 20s with a really thick New Jersey-Italo accent. I’m thinking his mama, Caterina, was probably stocking young Gio’s freezer with all of his Sicilian favorites. Now he’s all grown up, gone and got hitched to a nice girl and is the father of two little girls. Perhaps that’s why he’s begun sharing Caterina’s recipes on Facebook?
Whatever the reason, thank goodness!
First on the menu is Caterina’s pasta e fagioli, an Italian classic of pasta and beans, which is neither soup nor stew, but a little bit of both. As you can imagine, there are more versions of “pasta fajool” (as the folks in Jersey might call it) than there are days in a year, depending on region, family recipe and how it was passed down. Some versions call for tomato, others use white cannellini beans, and cooks will debate whether it should be in brodo or more like a thick pasta sauce. Everyone will agree, however, that pasta e fagioli is stick-to-your-ribs fare designed to fill up hungry working folks for little lire. In fact, my batch cost me about $3, as I had most of the ingredients on hand, but I figure you could do this for about $6.
The version below, is “exactly how Mom cooks it,” reports Gio. Tomatoes do not figure in Caterina’s fagioli, and she does this fun little trick of pureeing half the carrots and celery, which thickens as well as flavors the beans. A nice twist.
The idea is that you make a big ole pot of beans -- in her case, three kinds -- and then spoon out a portion, thin it with water in a separate saucepan and then cook the pasta in the beans. This was a first for me. You cook only as much pasta as you need and treat the beans as a sauce. The beans themselves would feed a village, but if it’s just the two of you, consider freezing a bunch for much later when the hankering strikes. Because it will.
I stayed pretty true to Caterina’s recipe, except for the addition of garlic, as I wanted to understand the dish as she intended. Mister MA said he would have liked some heat or fresh parsley garnish, and I think yeah, maybe. He’s right, it was simple and uncomplicated, but I think that’s what I loved. I also noticed that as the fagioli cooled, the flavors intensified and the broth was thick and heady.
Mille grazie to Gio and Caterina! I can't wait to see what's next on the menu. More, per favore!
Nonna Caterina’s Pasta e Fagioli
1 tablespoons olive oil (KOD addition)
¼ onion, diced
4 carrots, washed, peeled and diced
4 celery stalks, washed and diced
2 cloves garlic (this was my addition)
1 cup pinto beans
1 cup green lentils
1 cup green split peas (I used yellow split peas for color)
About four ounces of pasta per serving (recommended spaghetti broken into fourths or ditalini, which are shaped like short little tubes)
Salt to taste
Olive oil for seasoning
Optional garnish: Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Gio’s sister likes to do this, which Caterina doesn’t understand. But hey! It’s family.)
Soak beans for at least four hours. The lentils do not need to be soaked.
Drain beans. Place a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat and add oil. Add onion, half the carrots and half the celery. Cook over low-medium heat until onions soften slightly and are aromatic, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add drained beans and lentils. With a wooden spoon, coat beans with aromatics and oil. Then cover beans with water, about three inches above bean level, Bring beans up to a boil and allow to cook at a rolling boil for about five minutes. (This is a KOD trick to help beans cook more quickly.) Reduce heat to a simmer and cover pot.
Meanwhile, in a blender or food processor, add the remaining carrots and celery (and garlic, if using), and puree, add a small amount of water to cover mixture. Season with salt and add to pot. Cook beans until tender, about 90 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust accordingly.
Assembling Your Pasta E Fagioli
For each serving, you’ll need 1 cup of the beans. For a party of two, place about 2 cups of the beans in a medium saucepan and add two cups of hot water to start. (Have more hot water on hand just in case.) Bring mixture up to a boil and add pasta. Add more hot water if you prefer the results to be on the soupier side. (Caterina's preference is in the middle, leaning a little on the thicker side.)
Cook until pasta is al dente, but pay attention to the water level and add more water if bean mixture is getting dry.
Serve in bowls. Drizzle olive oil on top and grated cheese if you like.
Once completely cooled, the beans can be frozen and then reheated and assembled with a new batch of pasta.
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