As a sophomore in college, I had basically given up on eating at the college dining hall. The food was dreck and I had a microwave stashed under my bed (St. Bonaventure University must have gotten a good deal on its wiring for Shay-Loughlen Hall and microwaves were banned). By the middle of the fall semester, I was living on a pretty steady diet of popcorn, Totino’s pizza rolls and Progresso soup — particularly the macaroni and bean variety.
If you think about it, pasta e fagioli (or pasta fazool, as it is more commonly bastardized) is as appropriate for a college student as it was for the poor immigrants that came to America from the old country. Cheap protein plus cheap starch plus cheap tomato base equals a filling meal (let’s ignore the sodium content of canned soup for now).
The canned version was no match for homemade, particularly my father’s. His is more soup like, with a runny tomato broth, a lot of garlic and a base of proscuitto for fat. I’ve been on a quest for a thicker stew-like variety and I think I might have found one from Chow.com, by way of The Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan.
Naturally, I modified the recipe. As I mentioned before, I have no use for dried beans and find the canned versions just fine. I had also planned to incorporate pancetta as my base, but I forgot it due to multiple distractions (The Baby and, well, The Baby). The end result was a very starchy broth that complemented the beans and pasta nicely. I think we have a keeper. Here’s how I would have made it with the pancetta:
Pasta e Fagioli
Adapted from Chow.com
- 1 cup dried small tubular or salad pasta (ditalini, mini farfalle, mezzi rigatoni, or as I used, mini shells)
- 2 cans small canellini or Great Northern beans
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2-3 oz. pancetta, diced
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Set a fine mesh strainer over a medium to large bowl. Pour the beans into the strainer. Rinse out the cans with cool water and pour over the top. Set aside.
Dump the beans into bowl with the water and use 3-4 quick bursts from an immersion blender to puree some of the beans. In lieu of the stick blender, add 1/4 of the beans plus the water to a food processor or blender to create a paste. Return the paste to the bowl of beans.
Boil water in a medium saucepan. Salt the water lightly then add your pasta, cooking halfway (if the box says eight minutes, cook it for four). Drain the pasta and set aside.
In the meantime, heat olive oil and pancetta in a large saucepan over a medium-high flame. When the fat from the pancetta is rendered and the meat is fragrant, add onions and cook until soft, 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute. Stir constantly to prevent browning. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomato paste to the pan and cook until it caramelizes, 3 minutes. The paste should melt together with the other ingredients.
Add the reserved bean liquid to the pan and mix together with the tomato paste until thinned out. Add the beans and paste to the pan and simmer 10-15 minutes. Add the pasta to the pan and cook five minutes. Add the grated cheese and stir to combine. Serve hot with crusty bread.