Mom’s Pasta e Fagioli (Mom’s Pasta and Beans)

February 22, 2017

We didn’t eat a lot of prepared foods growing up.  In fact we almost never did.  OK, there were a few times in the early 60’s where I got to try out those recently-invented “TV Dinners.”

I was well into adulthood before I had a real appreciation for the quality of the homemade food that was put on our table every day.

My mother made putting great food on the table seem effortless.  I remember many Sunday mornings when I’d wake up to find her making ravioli from scratch for our big midday meal: cooking the beef and spinach filling, preparing the dough, rolling and filling the ravioli, all the while a big pot of tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove.  It was just a family Sunday dinner!

Weekday meals were usually less elaborate but no less delicious; maybe homemade sausage, pan-fried potatoes, and a vegetable or two or maybe pasta with sauce leftover from Sunday.  It was always fun to walk into the kitchen to find her making something I’d never had before; something that her mother used to make.  Sometimes that wasn’t even at a defined meal time.

Now I think I understand.  My mother died in 1993 and I bet I didn’t make her version of pasta e fagioli for 20 years after her death.  Then one day, the desire for it just struck me and there I was, in the kitchen, cooking.

It’s become part of my regular routine again after that long hiatus.  Sitting down to a bowl of my mother’s pasta e fagioli is comforting; almost as comforting as if she had made it for me.  There’s just something about the combination of pasta, beans and red sauce that I can’t explain.  It triggers an emotional bridge to what feels like an earlier time in my life.  I’m guessing something similar prompted my mother to occasionally whip up dishes from her youth that she hadn’t made in decades, if ever.

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Mom's Pasta e Fagioli (Mom's Pasta and Beans)
Follow the directions for Cannelini alla Toscana but use dried lima beans instead of cannellini and substitute ½ teaspoon of dried oregano and a sprig of fresh rosemary for the sage. There will be leftover beans that you can freeze or refrigerate for another use. You can also use two 15 ounce cans of Butter Beans in place of the home-cooked lima beans. Mom always used ditalini for this dish. These days, when you can find them (and it can be challenging) they have usually been upgraded from ditalini to ditali, though they are exactly what she used. More frequently, I use a slightly larger, but still rather small, pasta such as the mezzi rigatoni shown here.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Finely dice the onion. Sauté the onion in ¼ cup of olive oil until soft and golden.
  2. Add the crushed red pepper and sauté another minute.
  3. Add the tomato paste and sauté, stirring frequently until the tomato paste turns a shade darker and smells sweet, 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the water, oregano, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well to fully incorporate the tomato paste.
  5. Bring to a very low boil, partially covered, and cook 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning as needed, tasting several times as the sauce cooks.
  6. Meanwhile, sauté the garlic in the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil very slowly until browned. Remove from the heat and reserve.
  7. The dish can be cooked several hours ahead to this point.
  8. Bring three quarts of water and three tablespoons of salt to a boil.
  9. While the water is heating, add the beans and their liquid to the tomato sauce, return to a simmer, and cook, partially covered till the pasta is ready.
  10. Cook pasta until it still has a small bit of chewy center. It will cook more in the sauce. Scoop out and reserve two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
  11. Drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the tomato-bean mixture. Add the browned garlic and olive oil. Stir well, cover and cook on very low heat until the pasta is cooked but al dente and the sauce has thickened. Add some of the pasta cooking liquid as needed from time to time to create a smooth sauce.
  12. Off the heat stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  13. It is not unheard of for me to add an extra glug or two of olive oil at this point to get a luscious sauce. Stir and decide if another dash of pasta-cooking water is needed, as well.
Recipe Notes

Mezzi Rigatoni

 

 

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Pasta ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)

January 27, 2017

Growing up, pasta was almost always served with a long-cooked Southern Italian ragu.  Yes, there was the occasional sauce of vegetables sautéed in olive oil till they softened enough to make a sauce but those sauces were the exception to the rule.

These days, a long-cooked ragu is still the epitome of pasta cooking for me but far more often I make quicker sauces.  Pasta with mushrooms is one of them.

In my last post, I introduced nepita, an herb used in Italy that is really not commonly available in the US.  Nepita pairs really well with mushrooms.  The nepita that I use is from plants that we grow from seeds we brought back from Italy in 1996.  I’m so concerned that one day our nepita won’t make it through the winter and reappear in the spring that we’ve taken to backing it up the way other folks back up their data.

Over the years we’ve gifted nepita plants to friends who like to garden.  Should a disaster ever befall our nepita, there should still be a clone of it somewhere with enough seeds that we can germinate another plant or two.  For an herb that I’ve only known for 20 years, it’s become an integral part of my kitchen.

While there’s no real substitute for nepita, there are lots of herbs that go well with mushrooms.  In this rendition, I’ve called for basil and oregano, the combination that I usually use when I don’t have nepita.  Marjoram also works well, with or without a pinch of thyme, but marjoram is a relatively uncommon herb in Italian cooking.

Herbs are not a major player in this dish.  Though nepita is distinctive, there are so many layers of flavor from the dried porcini, onion, garlic, and marsala that the lack of nepita isn’t really a big deal.  Basil and oregano work well and, in fact, are what I used before that 1996 trip to Tuscany where I discovered nepita.

Pasta ai Funghi was one of the courses I served at my father-in-law’s birthday dinner last week.  Here are a couple of pictures of that dinner from our home in Palm Springs.

 

My father-in-law (left) and mother-in-law. Good friend, Gino Barcone is in between.
From left to right, John Berl, Bill Hoadley, and Bob Bauernschmitt.

 

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Pasta ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)
While many mushroom-based sauces for pasta contain cream and butter, this one uses only olive oil. It creates a beautiful, glossy sauce. The mushrooms can be prepared several hours in advance making this an ideal dish if you are cooking for company.
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Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Servings
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Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Soak porcini in enough warm water to just cover. When soft, about 15 minutes, squeeze excess water out of the mushrooms. Reserve the liquid. Finely chop the porcini.
  2. Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth.
  3. If you are using common white mushrooms, slice off the very bottom of the stem as it is usually a bit dry. There is no need to remove the rest of the stem, though.
  4. Turn each mushroom upside down and cut into 1/8 inch thick slices. If the mushrooms are really large, you might have to make a crosswise cut as well.
  5. Slice or cut other mushrooms into similar sized pieces. For example, cut large portobello mushrooms into long strips approximately 1/8 inch thick and then cut each strip into smaller pieces.
  6. If you are using oyster and/or enoki mushrooms cut them into slightly larger pieces and keep them separate as they require less cooking than most other mushrooms.
  7. Finely chop the onion and reserve.
  8. In a sauté pan large enough to hold the mushrooms and cooked pasta, heat the ¼ cup of olive oil, over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the finely chopped porcini. Sauté a minute or two until the porcini becomes aromatic, being careful not to burn them.
  9. Add the reserved porcini soaking liquid. Over high heat, quickly evaporate the liquid, stirring often.
  10. Once the liquid is evaporated, add all the cut-up mushrooms to the sauté pan, except for quick cooking types like enoki and oyster mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms, still on high heat, stirring often until they have absorbed all the olive oil.
  11. Season liberally with salt and reduce the heat to medium low.
  12. Stir the mushrooms often until they begin to release their liquid. When they do, turn the heat to high and cook until all the liquid is evaporated, stirring often. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
  13. Continue sautéing the mushrooms until they just begin to brown. Now is the time to add any quick-cooking varieties of mushrooms, such as oyster and enoki, you may be using.
  14. Continue to sauté until of the mushrooms are nicely browned.
  15. When the mushrooms are brown, add the onion and crushed red pepper.
  16. Over medium heat, cook until the onion is soft and golden.
  17. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about one minute until it becomes fragrant.
  18. Stir in the oregano and basil, or, if you are lucky enough to have a stash, about 1 teaspoon of fresh nepita or ½ teaspoon of dried. Add the marsala. It will evaporate almost immediately.
  19. Remove the sauté pan from the heat until the pasta is ready. The mushrooms can be made several hours ahead to this point.
  20. Cook the pasta in well-salted water until al dente. Meanwhile gently warm the mushrooms if they were made ahead.
  21. When the pasta is cooked, remove about 1 cup of pasta-cooking liquid and reserve. Quickly drain the pasta. Do not rinse. Add the pasta to the warm mushrooms along with about ¼ cup of the reserved pasta-cooking liquid. Cook over low heat, stirring often for about one minute.
  22. Remove the pasta and mushrooms from the heat. Add the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and stir to combine. Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and the truffle oil, if using. Stir to combine. The cheese and the starch in the pasta cooking liquid should help to emulsify the olive oil and water, creating a glossy sauce.
  23. If the pasta is too dry, add more pasta-cooking liquid, just don’t make it watery. The cheese, olive oil and water should hold together.
  24. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed.
  25. Serve immediately, preferably in warmed pasta bowls. Pass additional freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the table.
Recipe Notes

I most often make this with ordinary white button mushrooms, especially if I am going to add the truffle oil. Using an array of different mushrooms, such as cremini, baby bella, oyster, and enoki makes a visually and texturally interesting dish, however.

When I make pasta, I always pour some of the pasta-cooking liquid into the serving bowl to warm it.

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Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

January 18, 2017

Talk about comfort food!  Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans) hits the spot (for me, at least!).

There are endless variations.  White kidney beans, red kidney beans, chick peas, butter beans, fava beans, for example.  Ditalini, mezzi rigatoni, lumaconi, orecchiette, linguine, and more.  Not to mention the possibilities of tomato sauce, anchovies, broccoli, rapini, and escarole.  I could go on but you get the point.  You could mix and match just those ingredients and come up with hundreds of different combinations.

Growing up, my mother made only one version that I recall.  It featured butter beans, tomato sauce and ditalini.  The amount of liquid was equivalent to pasta with a red sauce.  My Aunt Margie, my mom’s sister, made hers with chick peas and ditalini, no tomato sauce, and it was definitely more of a soup.  My guess is that my grandmother made both versions, and probably others, but my mom and my aunt each settled on one for their cooking repertory.

Then there’s a version that I learned from a work colleague, Louis Evangelista, more than thirty years ago.  He learned it from his Sicilian grandfather.  It features linguine, red kidney beans, escarole, red pepper, and an abundant amount of garlic.

Then there’s orecchiette with kidney beans, broccoli and anchovy.

But we’re not making any of these today.  We’re doing a simple version with kidney beans and lumaconi.  The others will make their appearance in the coming months.

Lumaconi is a wonderful pasta shape for pasta e fagioli.  Lumaconi means snails.  Look at the picture below and you’ll see the resemblance.  What’s so cool about using lumaconi is that the beans naturally slip inside the cooked pasta for the perfect mouthful of beans and pasta!

If you use red kidney beans rather than white, the contrast between the bean and pasta will look startlingly like real snails.  This might not be a good thing depending on your audience!

I strongly encourage you to start with dry beans rather than canned.  Follow the recipe for Cannellini alla Toscana using either white or red kidney beans.  For something as hands-off as putting a pot of beans in the oven you’ll be rewarded with enough beans for two, if not three, meals plus a taste profile that is infinitely superior to canned beans.

This last point was hammered home to me a few months ago.  We were in Alamogordo with Pat and Becky, friends from Santa Fe.  We spent the day at White Sands National Monument sledding down the dunes followed by lunch in Ruidoso before returning to our little house in Alamogordo (the house is another story for another day).

We didn’t feel like going out, not that there are many places to go out to in Alamogordo unless you count Chili’s, which, inexplicably, is my husband’s favorite restaurant in town.  Besides, we made the requisite pilgrimage to Chili’s the night before.

So, a couple of cans of kidney beans later, I was making pasta e fagioli.  It was good, no doubt.  But it had been a very long time since I had used canned beans (even though there is an entire phalanx of canned beans in my pantry).  I was actually startled by the difference in taste and texture, having grown so accustomed to using home-cooked beans.

However, by all means, if using canned beans is the difference between trying this dish, and not.  Go for it!  You might want to throw an extra bit of herbs in the pot at the beginning, like a bay leaf and some sage, but it’s not really essential.

Let me know what you think of the recipe.  And for those of you who have your own favorite version of pasta e fagioli, let me know what it is.

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Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)
The difference in taste and texture between home-cooked beans and canned beans is dramatic. I recommend cooking either red or white kidney beans using the Cannellini alla Toscana recipe. While I always keep canned beans on hand for emergencies, my freezer is also always stocked with a variety of cooked beans. Whenever I make Cannellini alla Toscana, I freeze leftover beans in portions of 1 ½ cups of beans covered in whatever cooking liquid is left. I never discard any of the cooking liquid. Ideally, you should have enough cooking liquid to cover the beans for the first part of the cooking, before adding the pasta and some pasta-cooking liquid. If you are using canned beans, two 15 oz. cans of beans is the right amount. Do not discard the liquid in the can. It will help to thicken the sauce.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. Combine the beans and their liquid, onion, basil, and red pepper, and freshly ground black pepper to taste in a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to contain the cooked pasta and beans. If the bean cooking liquid and wine does not cover the beans, add water to just cover.
  2. Simmer, partially covered approximately twenty minutes. Taste for salt after about 10 minutes. Remember that the pasta will be well salted and you will be adding Parmigiano so best not to over-salt at this point.
  3. Meanwhile, bruise the garlic with the side of a knife.
  4. Sauté the garlic in the olive oil very slowly until browned. Garlic should be quite brown but not burnt which would make it bitter. Remove and discard garlic. Reserve the garlic-flavored oil.
  5. Cook pasta in 4 quarts of abundantly salted water. The pasta will finish cooking with the beans, so there should still be a small core of hard pasta in the center.
  6. Just before draining the pasta, scoop out and reserve about two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
  7. If you will not be serving the pasta e fagioli in the cooking pot, pour some of the cooking water into the serving bowl to warm it while you finish cooking the pasta and beans.
  8. Drain the pasta but leave some water clinging. That is, there is no need to shake the colander. Add the pasta to the bean mixture. Stir to combine. Add the garlic oil. Mix well.
  9. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat for approximately 10-15 minutes stirring occasionally until the pasta is cooked through but still ad dente. Add a little of the reserved pasta water from time to time if needed. When the pasta is finished there should be just enough water remaining to create a sauce.
  10. Off the heat, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano.
  11. The combination of the cheese and the starch from both the bean cooking liquid and the pasta cooking liquid should create a glossy sauce.
  12. You might want to stir in an extra tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil both for the flavor and to help emulsify the sauce. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed.
  13. If not serving the pasta in the cooking pot, drain and dry the warmed serving bowl and pour in the pasta.
  14. Serve the pasta e fagioli with additional freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and crushed red pepper.
Recipe Notes

More than other seasonings, quantities of dried red pepper are mere suggestions. Different types of red peppers vary in their heat and flavor profile. Different people have different tolerances for the heat of peppers. If I were making this dish for only myself, I would add at least a teaspoon of crushed red pepper and I’d probably still add more at the table. The suggested ¼ teaspoon is a modest amount that should not cause difficulty, even for individuals with a low tolerance for spiciness. However, make sure that you use one of the more traditional types of crushed red peppers, or even the whole dried Italian peppers that I used in this recipe. Do not make the mistake of using a dried version of one of the super-hot peppers (like bhut jalokia or naga jalokia or even Habanero or Scotch Bonnet) without understanding the heat level they pack!

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