This Pasta and Bean Soup is Italian Comfort Food
Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans) can be found throughout Italy. It’s a dish that everyone eats — and one that most everyone thinks of with nostalgia. Comfort food at its finest. And with the cold winter weather we’re having here in the Northern Hemisphere, we all need some comfort!
Pasta e Fagioli is usually served as a soup (a few versions are more like a very thick stew), and every region has its own recipe. Heck, I think every family has its own recipe. I recently started looking at all the Pasta e Fagioli recipes in my cookbooks and stopped when I reached the 30th different version — and I wasn’t even halfway through my cookbook collection! So even though the basic procedures and ingredients for making this dish are pretty similar, there are countless variations.
The traditional recipe involves soaking and then cooking dried beans, a procedure that takes some time (we’re talking hours, though the active time is minimal). And my recipe does specify dried beans. But there’s a shortcut you can take (detailed in the Notes), which means you can actually put together a credible version of this dish in about 40 minutes. Add a salad and you have a complete and nutritious meal.
Pasta e Fagioli. It’s Italian for good stuff!
Recipe: Pasta e Fagioli
In Italy, Pasta e Fagioli is made with either white beans (such as cannellini or Great Northern) or dark beans (like borlotti, cranberry, or pinto). The bean selection tends to vary by region, and both types produce good results. In the US, Great Northerns (white) and pintos (dark) are the most readily available. I specify white beans for this recipe, but feel free to substitute.
Pasta e Fagioli is sometimes a vegetarian dish, made with water rather than meat stock. It can also be made without additional meat flavoring. However, you get better flavor with both stock and a bit of meat, so I’m adding both.
You can use prosciutto or pancetta, but I’ve opted for bacon in my version of the dish. Pancetta and bacon are made from the same cut of meat (pork belly) and both are salted and cured. Most pancetta is not smoked, while bacon generally is (at least in the US). However, in northern Italy (in places like Montferrat) pancetta is often smoked too, so bacon makes an admirable substitute for their style of Pasta e Fagioli. Most of us have bacon on hand, and it’s might tasty in this dish, so it seems a natural choice.
Preparing the beans takes most of the time when making this dish. For best results, do an overnight soak — at least 8 hours. (The quick method reduces this to about an hour; details in the Notes.) Then you need to cook the beans for an hour, add some flavorings, and cook for another half hour or so. You can make it a day ahead and reheat (but don’t add the pasta in Step 12 until you reach the reheating stage).
This recipe serves about 8, and leftovers freeze well.
For Preparing the Beans:
- 1 cup dried Great Northern beans (or a similar bean like cannellini)
- 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half (for flavoring the beans; to be discarded in Step 9)
- 4 - 6 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole (for flavoring the beans; to be discarded in Step 9)
- a sprig of fresh rosemary, thyme, or other herb of choice (optional; for flavoring the beans; to be discarded in Step 9)
- 4 slices of bacon
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 - 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced or minced
- salt and pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste; optional)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon dried thyme or other herb of choice
- ~6 cups chicken or vegetable stock; or a mix of chicken and beef stock (the exact amount depends on how “soupy” you want the Pasta e Fagioli to be; if there’s too much liquid for your taste when the soup is close to being done, you can always simmer a bit to reduce the liquid)
- 1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 1 - 1½ cups small pasta like ditalini or elbow macaroni (if you use the larger amount, you’ll have a fairly thick soup)
- Garnish of fresh rosemary or other herb, or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (optional)
The first 4 steps pertain to preparing the beans; soup assembly begins with Step 5.
- Pick over beans (to remove any dirt or stones) and soak 8 hours or overnight in enough water to cover by several inches. (See Notes for quick-soak method.) I usually leave the beans out on the kitchen counter overnight, but you can refrigerate them if you’re worried that they may start to ferment.
- When ready to cook beans, drain and rinse. Place the beans in a 4-quart or larger pot (I find that a 6-quart job works better, but the 4-quart size is adequate). Add enough water to cover by 1 inch.
- Peel the medium onion and cut in half; add to the pot. Peel the garlic cloves and add to pot. Add a sprig of rosemary (or other herb) if using.
- Bring beans to a simmer. Set timer for an hour.
- At the hour mark, begin to assemble the soup. Cut bacon into strips ¼ inch thick. Put it in a cold skillet, turn heat to medium, and sauté until it cooks through and browns.
- Meanwhile, peel and dice onion. Add it to the skillet with the bacon (even if the bacon isn’t thoroughly browned).
- Peel and dice or slice the garlic, and add it to the bacon and onion, along with salt and pepper to taste (go easy on the salt; you can do a final adjustment later).
- When the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent (it should take no more than 10 minutes from the time you put the bacon in the skillet), add red pepper flakes and minced rosemary or thyme.
- Fish out and discard the onion, garlic, and rosemary sprig that you put in with the beans in Step 3. These were meant to help flavor the beans, and their job is now done (I usually leave the garlic in, but that’s up to you).
- Add the contents of the skillet to the beans. Add stock and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes.
- Taste the soup, and adjust seasoning. If you have a stick blender, you might want to give the mixture a whiz or two to break down the beans and help thicken the soup; or you can mash the beans against the side of the pot with a large spoon (optional step, but recommended). The soup can be prepared ahead of time to this point, then cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container. Bring the soup back to a simmer when you’re ready to serve, and proceed with the next step.
- Add the ditalini or other pasta, and cook another 8 to 10 minutes (until the pasta is done).
- Serve with a garnish of fresh rosemary (or other herb) and/or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
- Instead of using dried beans, you can substitute two ~15-ounce cans of white beans that have been rinsed and drained. If you do so, skip the first 4 steps. Sauté the bacon and onion in a 4-quart pot that has a wide bottom (Step 5). Then in Step 10, add the beans to the pot, along with the stock and tomatoes. You may want to increase the amount of stock by a couple of cups if you go this route.
- The flavor of this soup isn’t quite as good with canned beans. But using canned lets you prepare the soup in 40 minutes or so, from start to finish.
- Quick-soak method for dried beans: Pick through the beans, then rinse them. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of water. Bring to boil, and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for at least one hour. Then drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe. As is the case when you used canned beans, you may want to increase the amount of stock if you use this method.
- Beans soaked overnight have slightly better texture (when cooked) than beans that are quick-soaked, but the difference is minimal. In fact, nowadays when I use dried beans, I almost always use the quick-soak method. But that’s because I usually forget to soak my beans overnight!
- Why soak dried beans? Because they cook much quicker when you rehydrate them. Most beans benefit from soaking. However, because lentils and split peas cook fairly quickly without rehydration, you can use them without soaking.
- A secondary benefit is that while rehydrating, the beans also release some of their flatulence-inducing sugars (oligosaccharides) into the water. When you discard the soaking water, you discard a few nutrients that have leeched into it. But you also discard some of the substance that can cause people to shy away from dried beans.
- You can prepare the beans ahead of time, through Step 4 (in which case cook until they’re tender – usually an hour and a half or a bit less). Cool them in their liquid and store overnight (with their liquid) in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Then the next day, proceed with Step 5, and make your soup.
- Although I specify adding 6 cups of stock to the soup in Step 10 (in addition to the water you’re using to cook the beans, added in Step 2), use your own judgment. When you add the pasta to the pot, it’s going to soak up some of the liquid, so keep that in mind. And if you leave the pasta in the soup, it will expand a bit over time, soaking up more liquid. I suggest making this soup as directed the first time, then adjusting the liquid to suit your taste the next time.
- For stock, I often use soup base rather than canned stock if I don't have homemade available. Check your supermarket’s soup aisle — that’s where you’ll find them. I particularly like the Better than Bouillon brand, although there are other good brands too.
- Italian cooks often make stock using both chicken and beef, so mixing the two in Step 10 is traditional and makes sense.
- This isn’t a quick recipe, so you’ll want to prepare it on a day when you’re around the house — perhaps on a weekend. However, as noted above, it freezes quite well. You can take this from the freezer, put it in a saucepan with a bit of water, and be eating soup in about 20 minutes. When reheating, you’ll want to watch the pot a bit after the first 5 minutes so the soup doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan. Just stir it from time to time to prevent this.
World Class Eaters
“I wonder if we were Italians in a prior life?” Mrs Kitchen Riffs asked. “I mean, look at the way we’re inhaling this soup!”
“Maybe,” I said, scraping my spoon against the bottom of my bowl. “But we’re pretty much the same when we eat Indian, or Chinese, or — well, anything.”
“True,” she said. “I guess we’re citizens of the world. Stomach wise, I mean. But this soup is something special, you have to admit. Say, did you really find 30 different recipes for it?”
“Yup. And there’s more,” I said. “Knowing us, we’ll end up trying them all. But first things first! My soup bowl is empty. And so is yours.” I nodded at the tureen. “Seconds?”
Mrs K R slid her bowl across the table to me. “I thought you’d never ask.”
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