Getting beans to the right texture and the liquid to the right thickness is almost an art form.
Food is scarce in Cuba…at least if you’re a Cuban paying in Cuban Pesos. Not so much if you’re paying in CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is what foreigners use. The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar but if you change Dollars for CUCs you pay a 10% penalty as opposed to exchanging another currency, say the Euro, for CUCs.
I visited a butcher shop in Havana which pretty much now only sells chicken; when chicken is available, that is. If you notice the door to the cooler is open. That’s because the cooler isn’t on because there’s no inventory.
The butcher is just waiting around for chicken to arrive.
When that chicken does arrive, it will likely be frozen Tyson chicken from the United States. Even though, when this picture was taken, the US embargo of Cuba was in full force.
The same is true of hot sauce. If one asks for hot sauce at a restaurant in Cuba one is likely to get a bottle of Tabasco shipped in from Avery Island, Louisiana. Clearly there are exceptions to the embargo for some American companies!
If you pay in CUCs, the food available increases dramatically.
The disparity in prices for food purchased with Pesos vs CUCs is so large that average Cubans cannot afford to buy food with CUCs, even if they can get them. It takes 25 Cuban Pesos to buy one CUC. Paying in Pesos limits one to shopping in pretty-much locals’ only stores, with limited inventory where the products, like rice and beans, are sold at subsidized prices.
Rum is widely available regardless of the currency. You’ll pay more if you’re a foreigner, however.
After returning from the trip to Cuba in 2014, I tried but couldn’t get the texture of my “Cuban” black beans right. But then, my mother-in-law got a recipe from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco. Betty is from Cuba. She was in the exercise group my in-laws attend. Betty’s recipe, using a pressure cooker as is common in Cuba, works like a dream. It’s really pretty effortless, too. The green pepper, onion, and garlic add tremendous flavor but are removed after cooking leaving just beans and the silky cooking liquid.
I made three changes to Betty’s recipe. She called for 1 teaspoon of white wine. I use 1 tablespoon. Betty didn’t use tomato paste or black pepper but both are common ingredients in many Cuban black bean recipes.
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Cuban Black Beans
This recipe came from Beatriz (Betty) Scannapieco in my in-law’s exercise group. Betty is from Cuba. I added the tomato paste and black pepper to Betty’s recipe. I also increased the wine from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon. It can be challenging to get the bell pepper, onion, and garlic out of the beans as they very soft after cooking. If you want to make it easier, you could tie them in cheesecloth.
At the age of 12, shortly after the end of World War II my mother-in-law, her brother (our Uncle Ray), and mother came to the States. Her father had been in the US working with the intention of bringing over the family but then the war broke out and the family could not be reunited until it ended.
One set of cousins stayed in Treppo Grande. Another set of cousins moved to France.
In 1990 the “cousins,” as the US contingent called themselves, hatched a plan to organize a group trip to their hometown of Treppo Grande and to Digoin, France where the other set of “courtyard cousins” lived.
Naturally, planning for the trip required many “meetings” among the cousins; meetings that were fueled with copious amounts of food and alcohol interspersed with a little “business!”
The trip happened in August 1991. My husband and I went along with the “cousins” and their spouses.
We first met up in Paris for a day or two and did some sightseeing.
Afterwards, we were picked up in a small bus that had been arranged by Olvino, one of the original “courtyard cousins” who lived in Digoin. As I recall, the driver only spoke French. Among us we spoke English, Italian, Friulan (the language of Friuli), and a smattering of Spanish and German, but no French. Thankfully the driver knew where he was going and, for all other needs, we managed to communicate in some rudimentary, but effective, manner.
Interesting to me was that the vehicle had graph paper that kept a running record of the bus’s speed. Apparently the driver could be asked to produce the graph paper by the police and could be fined if it showed that he had exceeded the speed limit. Can you imagine that happening in the United States???
I was also fascinated when we stopped for lunch. The driver had a glass of wine. I will repeat that. This professional bus driver had a glass of wine with lunch then got behind the wheel. Apparently, he was legally permitted to have one, just one, glass of wine and still drive.
Admittedly, one glass of wine is not going to get anyone’s blood alcohol level close to a level that produces intoxication but it pointed out that 1) the French are highly (overly?) regulated and 2) Europeans have a more relaxed approach to alcohol (probably to life in general, actually!).
I had a similar experience in 1994 when I did several consulting gigs in Europe. I frequently had lunch with physicians from the hospitals where I was consulting. Everyone (yes, everyone) had a glass of wine or beer with lunch and then went back to the hospital to work.
But I digress.
We spent several fun days in Digoin, where the local cousins had rented out a small hall, with a kitchen, because none of them had a house big enough to host all of us, and all of them, for meals.
There must have been six banquet tables shaped into a “U” around which we all sat. The crowd included not only those of us from the States, but the cousins who lived in Digoin along with their significant others, their children, and their children’s significant others.
Conversations frequently included four languages. The “cousins” typically spoke Friulan with each other. From there, the conversation would get translated into Italian, English, and French so that everyone could understand anything of interest to the group.
I don’t remember what we ate for dinner the first night except for the pasta which was sauced with a red sauce made by Ivana, Olvino’s wife.
I was transported by that sauce.
Tomato sauces in Friuli are different from the rest of Italy in that they have noticeable amounts of “warm” spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. My mother-in-law makes a sauce similar to the one that Ivana makes but there are differences. For example, hers includes only beef. Today’s recipe, however, is a tribute to Ivana.
This is my interpretation of Ivana’s recipe. Since the original recipe contained a list of ingredients but no quantities, I had to figure out what worked.
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There should be a little bit of red-tinged oil floating on top of the sauce to improve the mouthfeel of the pasta—just a little. If you cannot find lean ground pork, you may want to grind your own. An actual meat grinder will work better than a food processor but if you’re using a food processor be careful not to grind the meat too finely. For the beef, I suggest using 93% lean. This recipe makes enough sauce for approximately 4 pounds of pasta. Extra sauce freezes well.
I crave carbohydrates. I can go about three to four days without eating pasta before I start to really crave it.
Funny, because we only had pasta about once or twice a week while I was growing up.
We did, however, have potatoes on many of the intervening days.
Sometimes we’d have gnocchi (little pasta dumplings made with potatoes and flour) or pierogi (pasta stuffed with potatoes)! Though there are many other pierogi fillings, potato and cheese was the preferred variation in our house.
Once, when I hadn’t been home from college for a while, I asked my mom to make either pierogi or baba (sometimes Anglicized to bubba) for me for dinner. She made both. There wasn’t a piece of meat in sight. She knew me all too well. Meanwhile, the two college friends who came home with me were aghast at the absence of meat…and vegetables for that matter!
Americans, by and large, are not protein deficient so the occasional meal without meat or another major protein source isn’t an issue.
My mom’s potatoes with tomato sauce were usually served alongside sausage. Typically, it would be hot Italian fennel sausage that was browned in a skillet then braised slowly with some water to tenderize it.
If we were having kielbasa, the second most common sausage in our house, my mom would make a version of these potatoes without the tomato sauce. She’d get the potatoes good and brown and then cover the pan for a bit to trap the moisture and tenderize the potatoes without making them mushy.
Since my mom made a big pot of slow-cooked Southern Italian sugo most every Sunday, there was a ready supply of homemade tomato sauce for these potatoes. In my house, unfortunately, I don’t make that kind of sauce often enough (though I plan on changing that) and it always seems like a luxury to use some of it for these potatoes as opposed to putting the sauce on pasta.
I have found, however, that my uncooked pizza sauce works well. In a pinch canned or bottled tomato puree is good too (or even one of those 8 ounce cans of tomato “sauce”). If using canned puree, add a pinch or two of oregano for flavor.
While Italian versions of potatoes cooked in tomato sauce usually end up being more “saucy,” this Italian-American version turns the tomato sauce into little more than a coating on the potatoes.
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Mom's Potatoes with Tomato Sauce
This variation on home-fried potatoes was common in our house. Cooking potatoes in tomato sauce is very Italian but this variation, which includes bell pepper and onion, and where the tomato sauce is basically cooked away, is more Italian-American. The tomato sauce could be leftover homemade pasta sauce (without meat) or pizza sauce. It can also be canned tomato puree. If using puree, I suggest adding a few pinches of dried oregano for flavor.
Peel the potatoes. Cut them crosswise into ¼ inch thick slices.
Cut the bell pepper into 1/3 inch dice.
Dice the onion.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a 12 inch skillet.
When the oil is hot, add the potatoes. The potatoes should start sizzling immediately. Season the potatoes with 1 teaspoon of salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Do not stir the potatoes just yet.
Allow the potatoes to brown on the bottom.
These are getting browner on the bottom but not ready to turn yet.
When the potatoes on the bottom have turned golden brown, use a spatula to flip and separate them.
When approximately 1/3 of the potatoes are browned, add the bell pepper.
Continue cooking, allowing the potatoes on the bottom to brown more before flipping and separating, until about ½ of the potatoes are browned and the bell pepper is just beginning to char.
Add the onion.
Continue cooking until the potatoes are nicely browned and the onion is golden. Adjust the heat as needed to prevent the potatoes and onions from burning, though a few dark spots won’t be a problem.
Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
Add the tomato sauce to the potatoes. Mix well.
Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, until the potatoes are tender, but not mushy, stirring occasionally. Approximately 45-60 minutes more. The tomato sauce should have pretty much completely evaporated, leaving the potatoes coated in red.
If my mother said she was making “soup” without any qualifiers, it meant her beef noodle soup.
She would cook a good-sized piece of beef in her soup pot along with large pieces of carrot, celery and potato till the meat was falling apart.
She would cook thin egg noodles separately.
To serve the soup, everyone would get a bowl of broth with pieces of carrot, celery and potato. The large piece of beef would be in its own serving bowl and the noodles in another.
At the table, everyone added beef (shredding it with a serving fork) and noodles to their bowl of broth for the ultimate customization.
I haven’t had soup this way since my mother died. I actually don’t ever remember being served soup in the same manner by anyone else, anywhere, ever. If you’ve ever heard of, or had, soup being served this way, I’d really like to hear about it.
The other soup my mother made frequently was what is sometimes called “Italian Wedding Soup.” It is a rich chicken broth with pieces of chicken, small meatballs, carrots, celery, pasta (typically, acini de pepe), and escarole.
Occasionally my mother would make Slovak Mushroom Soup, with dried mushrooms and potatoes, or Potato Soup with potatoes, milk and onions. More often, however, we’d get these when visiting my grandparents. Early on, my grandmother would make soup, but when she got older, Aunt Ann or Aunt Mary would make it and bring it to my grandparents’ house.
On a Sunday, when my father, his six brothers, and all of their spouses and children would visit my grandparents, a lot of soup could be consumed. Mind you, there was no guarantee that there would be soup, but if there was, it needed to be an industrial quantity.
In the winter, my grandmother would keep the soup in a big pot in the root cellar in the basement. It was the same root cellar where she would make sour cabbage but that was before I was born. I know because my father and all of my uncles never tired of talking about my grandmother’s sour cabbage soup, or kissel. They bemoaned the fact that nobody made it any longer. I don’t have her recipe and while I can find recipes for soups that sound similar, none of them sounds exactly like the soup my father described.
Today’s soup, however, is not one that I grew up eating. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mother thought the carcass of a roasted turkey wasn’t intended to be reused. I first had turkey noodle soup, made with roasted turkey leftovers, when I was in college. The soup was made by Mary Lou d’Aquili, the wife of my college advisor and, many years later, the person with whom I went into psychiatric practice, Eugene d’Aquili.
Ever since then, I’ve turned the bones of most roasts into broth.
We have an array of fresh herbs year round thanks to the greenhouse. I have totally given up dried bay leaves in favor of fresh ones. They’re really easy to grow and the taste is incredible. California bay leaves are stronger than Mediterranean bay leaves so if the balance of flavors in a dish is critical, and you’re using the former, opt for about half the amount called for in the recipe. For most dishes, it’s not a critical distinction, however, and you can just substitute California for Mediterranean bay leaves.
Here’s a picture of our Bay Laurel plant, pruned down and ready to start its seasonal growth spurt. In the fall I’ll harvest the leaves to make an Italian Bay Laurel Liqueur, Liquore al Lauro or Liquore Alloro.
The following recipe for Turkey Noodle Soup starts with the Roasted Turkey Broth I posted a few weeks ago.
Turkey Noodle Soup
Save the bones, skin and shreds of meat from a roast turkey to make broth for soup. You can freeze the bones and make the broth later. You can also make the broth and freeze for future use. What you don’t want to do is to freeze the turkey noodle soup. I prefer not to freeze the soup, as the vegetables become too soft. If you must, however, freeze it before adding the noodles and peas. I keep a container of Parmesan cheese rinds in the freezer so that I always have them available to add to soup or other dishes to amplify the savoriness.
I grew up in a house where there was absolutely no use for the carcass from a roasted turkey. Other than my sister and I fighting over who got the crispy skin from the turkey breast, the skin went into the trash heap too.
You might imagine my surprise when, in college, I discovered that people actually did things with carcasses from roast turkey, like make broth to be used for turkey noodle soup.
To be sure, my recipe for turkey noodle soup will be posted later this month but in the meantime I would encourage you to make broth from the bones of most any roast, be it turkey, chicken, duck, pork, or beef. Then, be creative with how to use it.
Broths made from roasted meat bones and bits of meat have a really savory quality that you won’t get from a broth made with uncooked meat. You can’t always use them interchangeably so think about how the roasted-meat savoriness will play off the other flavors in the dish.
Roasted meat broths usually work well in hearty soups, for example, or as the liquid in a pot of Southwestern style cooked beans. Frozen in small containers or ice cube trays, you can use the broth as the liquid for a quick pan sauce or to enrich gravy.
In fact, when I make gravy for Thanksgiving, I start by roasting a couple of Cornish game hens or a few pounds of chicken or turkey wings until they are very, very brown. I use the roasted meat and some vegetables to make a rich, dark brown broth. I concentrate the broth even more by boiling it down to about 3-4 cups. While the turkey is roasting, I use the broth to make gravy, which I simmer for a couple of hours until it’s silky. When the turkey is cooked, I deglaze the pan, skim the fat off, strain out the solids, and add the liquid to the gravy that has been bubbling away for a couple of hours. By the time the turkey has rested and been carved, the gravy has reduced, again, to the right consistency. The gravy is rich and savory and, more importantly, there’s enough to smother everyone’s mashed potatoes and turkey. Doing it this way also removes the last-minute rush of actually making gravy on-the-spot from the pan drippings while you’re trying to get the meal on the table.
You might ask why I am dealing with a roasted turkey in spring rather than November. Easter Dinner! In addition to ham, I always make turkey since some of our friends don’t eat critters with more than two legs. So, just for fun, here are a few pictures from Easter, complete with the bleeding lamb cake we always have for dessert.
I have a couple of different types of fat separators. One is the more common style that resembles a small watering can with a spout that draws from the bottom of the liquid. My preferred one, however, has an opening on the very bottom. You just pour in the liquid, allow the fat to rise to the top, and squeeze the handle. The opening opens and out pours the fat-free liquid from the bottom. You can find a picture of it on my equipment page.
Roasted Turkey Broth
Unless I need an absolutely clear broth, I prefer to use the pressure cooker. It gets the job done in an hour of cooking and makes a more flavorful broth than simmering it on the stove. However, the broth is somewhat cloudy. If you don’t want to use a pressure cooker and you don’t want to have to think about a pot on the stove, make the broth in a slow-cooker for 6-8 hours. If your pressure cooker or slow-cooker won’t accommodate 3½ quarts of water, use as much as you can and then dilute the final product to 3 quarts.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, cook at 10 pounds pressure for one hour or in a slow-cooker on low for 6-8 hours.
Strain the broth.
Because the broth will likely develop a gelatin-like quality on cooling, I suggest removing the fat using a fat separator while the broth is still warm.
Add water to make three quarts.
I never add salt to any broth that I make unless I am making it for a specific purpose and I can plan for the final product. Broth with salt can make a dish too salty if the liquid needs to be reduced. The salt in a broth can also slow down the tenderization of dried beans. This might not be much of an issue at lower elevations but at 8000 feet getting dried beans to soften can be a challenge and anything that hinders the process is to be avoided.
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.
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.
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.
Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finely chop the onion and reserve.
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.
Add the reserved porcini soaking liquid. Over high heat, quickly evaporate the liquid, stirring often.
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.
Season liberally with salt and reduce the heat to medium low.
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.
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.
Continue to sauté until of the mushrooms are nicely browned.
When the mushrooms are brown, add the onion and crushed red pepper.
Over medium heat, cook until the onion is soft and golden.
Stir in the garlic and sauté for about one minute until it becomes fragrant.
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.
Remove the sauté pan from the heat until the pasta is ready. The mushrooms can be made several hours ahead to this point.
Cook the pasta in well-salted water until al dente. Meanwhile gently warm the mushrooms if they were made ahead.
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.
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.
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.
Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed.
Serve immediately, preferably in warmed pasta bowls. Pass additional freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the table.
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.
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 toin 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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, bruise the garlic with the side of a knife.
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.
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.
Just before draining the pasta, scoop out and reserve about two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
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.
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.
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.
Off the heat, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano.
The combination of the cheese and the starch from both the bean cooking liquid and the pasta cooking liquid should create a glossy sauce.
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.
If not serving the pasta in the cooking pot, drain and dry the warmed serving bowl and pour in the pasta.
Serve the pasta e fagioli with additional freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and crushed red pepper.
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!