They make you toot and they’re from Boston. That pretty much summed up my relationship with beans as a kid. Amazing what thirty years and a trip to Italy can do.
Now I simmer a weekly pot for pasta fagioli (pasta and beans), fave e cicoria (a Puglian dish of pureed favas with braised chicory), or beans simply dressed with sea salt and olive oil.
About a week ago my friend Samin Nosrat declared January #beanmonth. Samin is the kind of girl who can start a revolution or tradition or whatever. After the tsunami, she raised $150K for Japan in a single weekend by rallying her wide network of chef friends from across the country. So in an effort to promote the almighty bean, I’m cooking and singing its praise along with my dear friend. Beans are super healthy, and they’re dirt cheap and better for the environment compared to other proteins – beef, pork, cheese, even eggs.
My favorite bean dish is pasta e fagioli (or pasta fajool, pasta fazool, pasta fasioi, depending on where in Italy you are). It varies from region to region, home to home. The below version is a pasta and bean porridge. Another, like this recipe that I developed for Tasting Table, is more a pureed bean soup studded with pasta and beans. It was inspired by soups from Pizzeria Delfina. No matter the style, the basic techniques of the dish are the same:
1. Simmer beans in water until tender
2. Make a soffritto - sauté onions (with or w/o celery, carrot, garlic) in lots of oil
3. Add a few tomatoes or tomato paste
4. Blend some of the cooked beans and a little cooking water to make a puree
5. Add that puree and the cooked beans to the soffritto
6. Add the pasta and simmer until al dente.
Pasta e Fagioli
6 cups fresh cranberry beans or 1 pound dried cranberry or cannellini beans (soaked in water overnight)
1 bay leaf
4 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
½ cup, plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 red onions, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped pancetta (optional)
½ cup finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups halved and squeezed cherry tomatoes (about 28 whole) and their juice, or 6 whole canned tomatoes, crushed with your fingers)
1 pound cavaletti, tubetti, farfellini, or any small pasta
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil (for drizzling)
Parmesan cheese (for sprinkling)
1. In a large wide pot, combine the soaked and rinsed beans, bay leaf, 2 of the cloves garlic, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch (about 1 gallon). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook the beans until tender, 25 to 40 minutes for fresh beans, 45 minutes to 1 hour for dried beans. Season with salt (note: all of the bean cooking water will end up in your soup, so don’t over season. Check seasoning by tasting the water, not the beans.) Discard the bay leaf and cloves garlic.
2. While the beans are cooking, place another large wide pot over high heat. Once hot, add the remaining ½ cup olive oil and the pancetta and cook over medium heat until the pancetta browns and the fat renders. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate. To the pan of fat, add the remaining 2 cloves garlic, along with the onions and parsley and cook over medium heat until the onions become translucent but not browned, about 20 minutes. Halfway through the cooking of the onions, add the celery and crushed red pepper.
3. Once the onions have cooked, add the tomatoes and their juice, and 1 cup of the bean cooking liquid. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring often, until nearly all of the water has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
4. Place 2 cups of the cooked beans and 1 cup of bean-cooking liquid in a tall heatproof container, cool slightly, and puree with a blender. Transfer the bean puree to the onion-tomato mixture. (Set aside 1 cup of bean-cooking liquid.) Next, pour the remaining cooked beans and bean-cooking liquid into the onion-tomato mixture. Check the seasoning, adding more salt as needed. (Stop here if serving later. The pasta should be added just before serving. This bean base freezes beautifully!)
5. When ready to serve, bring the bean base to a boil, then add the pasta, and simmer, stirring constantly, until the pasta is al dente. Season generously and to taste with salt and pepper. (Pasta e fagioli is a thick porridge. If it’s too loose, transfer some of the liquid to a small pot and reduce over high heat until most of the water has evaporated, then return the thickened sauce to the pot. If it’s too thick, add some of the reserved bean-cooking liquid as necessary.) Serve in warmed shallow bowls, topped with the browned pancetta and a healthy drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serves 8. –JILL SANTOPIETRO