Pasta E Fagioli
I have a very clear vision of the first time I had Pasta E Fagioli (literally pasta and beans, a dish that goes way beyond its simple moniker.) It was a cold October Sunday around 1987. I was living in southern Connecticut at the time. I had spent the afternoon doing some yard work for a neighbor, Lucy Denegre. Lucy was the 63 year old daughter of Italian immigrants. Like all Italians I have known, she was generous to a fault, loved to socialize, and maintained a life long love affair with great food. Lucy always had something delicious to eat spread out on the kitchen table and this windy Fall weekend was no exception.
I had just poked my head in the front doorway to let her know that I had completed some work in her garden and was going home (just 50 yards away). She hustled up to me and, at the same time she pressed far too much money into my hand for what I had done, she led me by the elbow from the entry into the kitchen. Lucy and her husband, John, (a quite and gentle man who would sometimes treat the neighborhood kids to ice cream after we helped him to perform some large scale yard chore) were eating their dinner of pork chops and peppers fried in olive oil, crusty italian bread, and a rich and delicious smelling soup with tubetti pasta and white beans.
Lucy insisted that I eat something and when I demurred and explained that I would soon be having dinner at home, she declared that I needed an appetizer and the soup would suffice, just. I relented and sat down to a wide, flat bowl of chunky liquid that fell somewhere between soup and stew. It had the most intoxicating smell and the thick, rich broth warmed my chilled bones and the beans and pasta were satisfying and filling. I ate three bowls that day. Lucy, never one to hold back anything, decided that I should have the recipe for the soup so I could cook it for myself and my family. I made the Pasta E Fagioli several times in high school and college. To this day, it is one of only a few dishes that, for me, evokes the Japanese flavor concept of umami.
I recently rediscovered this deeply satisfying soup. The recipe below works best in a slow cooker, but you can cook it on a stovetop burner set to very low simmer. Use a heat diffuser over the burner if you can’t get the heat low enough. This is not the original recipe Lucy gave me. It is one I have cobbled together by playing with a half dozen other pasta and bean soup recipes. Still, I like to think Lucy would approve.
- 2 large carrots, roughly chopped
- 2 large celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 − 8 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 medium bay leaf
- 4 inches of rosemary sprigs
- 6 parsley sprigs
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 14oz can diced tomatoes in juice
- 2 16oz cans cannellini beans and liquid (navy beans)
- 3 cups chicken broth (replace with water to make vegetarian)
- 1.5 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 8oz tubetti or elbow pasta
- Salt and black pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a wide fry pan over medium heat. Fry the onion, garlic, celery, carrots, bay leaf, rosemary, and parsley till softened and the bulk of vegetables is reduced by 1/2, about 12 minutes. Remove and discard the herbs. Pour the remaining contents of the fry pan into the slow cooker or a deep pot.
Add the broth and the tomato paste and stir to incorporate the tomato paste. Add the beans with liquid and the diced tomatoes with liquid and stir to incorporate.
Add the red pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste.
Cook in a slow cooker on the low setting for 5 hours. (If using a stove top, cook in a deep pot, covered and heated to a very slight simmer.)
Thin the soup with some water if it is already thick.
Add the pasta and and cook on low (or at a simmer) for 20 minutes.
Serve in wide flat bowls, with plenty of crusty bread. No grated cheese with this soup, it is rich and thick enough already.