Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
Pasta fagioli (pah-stah fah-ZHOOL), is peasant food, comfort food, and (in my opinion) heaven in a bowl. This simple Italian supper stew of pasta and beans probably has as many variations as there are Italian families. Each region, village, and household has its own spin and nuance, but all of them have several key ingredients in common.
When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that's amore.
— From "That's Amore," as sung by Dean Martin
What Does It Take?
You don't have to eat at an Italian restaurant to get a good (dare I say perfect?) bowl of this wonderful food. You can actually make it at home. Let me explain to you each of the components and how they work together to make this rich, comforting dish.
Let's get started.
Onion and Garlic
Onion and garlic, in cooking, are called aromatics. These are vegetables that, when cooked in fat, add depth and impart deep flavors to savory dishes. The best onion of choice for pasta fagioli is the yellow onion. These are considered the universal, all-purpose onion and constitute about 75 percent of the world onion production. They are astringent yet sweet, and their sweetness intensifies with low, slow cooking.
Garlic is another ubiquitous aromatic, but perhaps you think its flavor is too harsh or too intense for a soup? Garlic doesn't have to be that way. If you treat it gently, it will reveal to you it's sweet side. Rule #1—don't smash it and don't push through a garlic press. Take your time and mince with a knife. Rule #2—don't cook it on high heat; it will burn and burnt garlic is bitter garlic. Low and slow is the way to go.
Bacon and pancetta are very similar. They are both cured and are made from the pork belly (not the rear leg). Both are also considered "raw" and need to be cooked before eating. However, pancetta is typically sold either diced or in paper-thin slices.
Bacon is cured, but it's also smoked and has a slightly different taste. Please, if you can, use pancetta in this recipe. If not available, you may use thin (not thick-sliced) bacon.
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We want a white bean for this dish, but are they all the same? Peruse the grocery aisle where dried pasta and legumes reside and you will find several varieties of white beans, most commonly cannellini, Great Northern, and navy.
They are all close in taste, but texture is a huge factor in this dish. Cannellinis are the largest of the three and, although they have the thickest skins, they cook up creamy yet intact. Great Northerns are slightly smaller. Their skins are more tender and they have slightly less creamy flesh. Navy beans are the smallest of the three and although they cook up tender, their skins slip off easily, making the final product seem more chewy in texture.
So, your ultimate choice is cannellini. If you cannot find them in your store, opt for the Great Northern white beans.
You need a very small pasta for this dish because you want a quick-cooking bite of pasta in every spoonful. I prefer ditalini. The name means "little thimbles" in Italian.
- 2 cups dry cannellini beans (see note below)
- 7 cups of water
- 1 cup finely diced yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 slices pancetta, chopped
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1½ cups uncooked ditalini
- 2 teaspoons fresh minced rosemary
Note: If you cannot find cannellini beans, Great northern beans are a good substitute. Do not use navy beans.
- First, sort and wash your beans. What do I mean? Spread them out on a cookie sheet and pick through them, looking for rocks, small clumps of dirt, or shriveled beans. Trust me, you don't want to have those things in your soup. Beans are not washed when they are harvested. Any moisture would cause them to mold, so after sorting, please wash your beans to remove field dust.
- Place the beans and water in a crockpot (slow cooker). Cook on high for 4 hours. After 4 hours the beans should be perfectly tender but not mushy. They should be intact but creamy on the inside.
- Place the onion and olive oil in a stockpot or large pot with a lid. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and pancetta. Stir and continue to cook over low heat until the onions are soft and golden, the garlic is fragrant and gently colored, and the pancetta is beginning to crisp. (Note that it will continue to cook in the soup).
- Add the broth to the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Stir in the pasta; reduce the heat to medium-low (just enough to maintain a gentle simmer). Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package, stirring occasionally until done.
- Add the rosemary and the cooked beans to the pot (there should be very little residual cooking water).
- Reduce the heat to low; stir to combine and allow to simmer together for a few minutes for the flavors to meld. The mixture will be very thick.
- Serve in bowls; garnish with pesto and/or grated Parmesan if desired.
Makes 6-8 servings
© 2019 Linda Lum