David Tanis famously opens his fantastic book, A Platter of Figs, by asking the question, “What makes a boy from Ohio,…raised on Tater Tots and Birds Eye, end up wanting to eat like a Greek peasant for breakfast, a French peasant for lunch, and a Moroccan peasant for dinner?”
Beans are the archetypal poor-man’s food—cheap, filling, nutritious. I had some beautiful cannellini and speckled kidney beans lying around, and searching for inspiration to use them, settled on the rustic Italian peasant dish pasta e fagioli.
You’re lucky I’m really excited to share this recipe with you. Normally, if the topic of beans pops up, I make a serious detour from whatever subject is at hand to leap onto my soapbox and rant about how people these days don’t know how to cook dried beans, and spend a lot of money on canned beans when really, all you have to do is put the dried beans in cool water (after carefully picking through them for little pieces of dirt or gravel) over night and voilà! They plump up beautifully and are all ready to cook the next day. They even look kind of pretty, soaking in the water, like little pebbles at the bottom of a clear stream.
No, but really, I wouldn’t subject you to that.
Pasta e fagioli is simple in theory: pasta and beans, simmered in herb-y tomatoes and broth until it turns into something warm and welcoming. Or so I thought. It turns out that everyone and their Italian nonna has very strong opinions about pasta e fagioli. Soupy versus stew-y. Vegetarian versus with some kind of Italian cured meat, like prosciutto or pancetta. Some recipes didn’t even have tomato in them. I gathered up a lot of versions of the recipe, but the one that I eventually settled on ended up being most influenced by the Williams-Sonoma Complete Pasta Cookbook. I think good ol’ W-S sealed the deal when the photo of the finished dish had a giant crouton on top of the soup with fontina cheese melted over the entire bowl.
Ultimately, though, I found myself just cooking to fulfill that notion of rustic pasta e fagioli I had in my head. Unfussy pasta and beans, simmered in herb-y tomatoes and broth, until it becomes something warm and welcoming.
(I’m going to apologize in advance because I made this meal at…well…dinnertime. So the lighting is kind of horrible. I promise in real life this looks appetizing and not so yellow.)
Pasta e fagioli
Liberally adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Complete Pasta Cookbook. Like many soups and stews, this is even better the day after you make it.
2 cups of dried beans (many kinds would work; I used cannellini and brown-speckled kidney)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced/crushed
Fine grain sea salt
2 cans no- or low-salt diced, canned tomatoes (or fresh, if in season)
2 teaspoons rosemary
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
4 cups good, low sodium vegetable broth
2 cups whole wheat pasta (Ben picked penne, you could use bow-ties or macaroni with similar success)
Hearty, crusty bread
Fontina cheese (I used a lovely “fontiago” that’s a blend of fontina and asiago)
The day before you cook, pick through dried beans for any dirt or gravel and rinse them. Soak in cool water for 8-10 hours.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot. Add onion, and sauté until softened. Add garlic and saute for two more minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes and rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, and red pepper flakes, and bring to a simmer. Salt to taste. Add vegetable broth and continue to simmer. Add beans, simmer for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally. About ten minutes before eating, add pasta and cook at a high simmer for about 10 minutes.
To serve, spoon into low ovenproof bowls. If desired, place a toasted slice of crusty bread on top, place fontina slices and/or slices of prosciutto on the bread, and broil on high for 5-10 minutes, until cheese and prosciutto are bubbling and just browning.