When the weather turns cold as it finally has done here in Savannah, nothing warms and satisfies me quite like the old Italian classic, Pasta e Fagioli, or as it's sometimes called in dialect "Pasta Fazool." In a single bowl, it combines the homey comfort of my father's beloved bean soup with my own love for beans and pasta in general, not to mention my lifelong love of both Italian and Southern cooking.
It's also a fine example of the many parallels between the cuisines of the American South and Italy. Both sets of cuisines have remained close to the land, even in urban centers such as Atlanta and Milan, and have withstood the relentless tide of modernization and the silly capriciousness of that recent culinary plague, "reinvention."
But it's more than that. There's a common approach to flavor, a shared logic in the way key ingredients are brought together with simplicity and respect. Traditional cooks in the South and throughout Italy have little use for novelty or cleverness for its own sake. A classic may evolve over time, with each generation adding a bit of its own to the pot, but these evolutions happen organically, within the sensible boundaries of tradition and taste.
And by taste, I literally mean what is right on one's tongue. Here in the South and in Italy, it doesn't matter how clever, startlingly inventive, or unique a cook has been. What matters is one simple thing: Does it taste of home? Are its flavors combined in a logical, sound way? And, most important of all, does it taste good?
Pasta e Fagioli endures because it does all those things—and, just possibly—because its good taste nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls.
My Pasta and Bean Soup
Or, if we must, Pasta e Fagioli alla Damon
Since there's only two of us in my household, and I usually make a full batch so we can have more than one meal from it. If the pasta has all been cooked in the soup, it'll continue absorbing the liquid and will swell up and get mushy in the leftovers, so I always cook the pasta separately and rinse it with cold water. That way it can be added to each portion as needed.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground chuck
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 large rib celery, strung and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 rounded teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons tomato paste
6 cups homemade meat broth or 2 cups beef broth, 2 cups chicken broth, and 2 cups water
4 cups cooked cranberry or pinto beans, drained
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
8 ounces ditalini or small elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Warm the oil in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the beef and lightly brown it, crumbling it with fork or spatula. Remove it with slotted spoon, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat, and add the onion. Sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes, then add the celery and carrot and sauté until they're softened and the onion is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and oregano and stir until fragrant, about half a minute.
2. Return the meat to the pot and stir in the tomato paste and broth. Raise the heat and bring to simmer, then adjust the heat to a gentle simmer and cook at least 20 minutes (longer won't hurt it). Raise the heat and add the beans, season to taste with salt and pepper, and it bring back to simmer. Adjust heat and simmer 10-15 minutes longer. I never do it, but if you like, it can be thickened by pureeing 1 cup beans and adding them back to the pot.
3. Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Stir in the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using the package directions as rough guide. If you're serving all the soup at once, slightly undercook it. Drain the pasta and if serving it all at once, stir it into the soup and let it simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Otherwise, fully cook the pasta and rinse it under cold running water. Just before serving, spoon ¼-½ cup of pasta into each bowl.
4. Stir the parsley into the soup, ladle it into individual bowls, and serve with cheese passed separately.
To precook dried beans, regardless of what scientists tell us, their skins will hold up better and be less likely to split if the beans are presoaked before they're cooked. Put them into a colander and pick through them, discarding any deformed or discolored ones, then rinse and drain them. Put them in a large, heavy-bottomed 3-6-quart pot. Cover with 2 cups of water for every cup of beans. Let them soak overnight. If you're pressed for time, put them over medium heat and slowly bring the water to a boil. Boil one minute and remover it from the heat. Let stand 1 hour, or until the beans have doubled in size. Either way, when you're ready to cook the beans, add more water as needed (it should cover them by at least 1 inch) and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour, replenishing the liquid with simmering water as needed. Season well with salt and let it simmer 3-4 minutes, and turn off the heat.