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It has always amused me that those who did not grow up with Pasta e Fagioli take great pains to try to pronounce it correctly. However, if this soup is part of one’s heritage, then it is also part of one’s heritage to butcher its name. “Pasta Fazool”, we say with abandon and appreciation for the bowlful of pasta and beans that never fails to warm the body and spirit on a cold winter’s day. Even in the fanciest of restaurants I cannot bring myself to pronounce it another way, and it is in fact remarkable that it is frequently served in the fanciest of restaurants, having its origins as it does in the peasant villages of Tuscany.
Like most country foods, there are as many Pasta Fazool recipes as there are cooks, and the range of flavors and textures achievable with these few and simple ingredients is amazing. The version I am going to share with you is an absolute staple in my home. I make a large pot of it at least once every two weeks in the winter months, as it keeps for a long time and in fact grows better with each day it keeps.
Pasta Fazool, and in particular my recipe, is very easy to make. It is made of ingredients that are inexpensive, easy to find, and mostly non-perishable, so you can keep them on hand and whip up a potful of soup when ever the mood strikes you. This version is vegetarian and can be vegan if one leaves out the cheese. It uses whole wheat pasta for added health benefits and is very low in calories. Throw in the fact that it is delicious, and what more could anyone ask of a soup?
8 oz. whole wheat pasta shells (Other small cuts of pasta such as elbows can be used, but the texture of shells works especially well with beans, and have the particular advantage of forming little wells to hold drops of broth.)
3 tbsp olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, chopped fine
8-12 celery stalks, chopped (I trim and use entire bunch of celery, removing tough outer stalks. Chop as finely or coarsely as you like, depending on preferred texture. Don’t skimp on the celery, it’s an important flavoring. I don’t use leaves, but they do add extra flavor so if you don’t mind the texture of celery leaves by all means use them.)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 generous pinch of dried red pepper flakes
2 cans (15 oz) cannellini beans, rinsed (You can substitute chick peas, or any white beans such as navy or great northern, or a combination of any of these.)
3 cups good quality vegetable stock (You can use your own favorite recipe or your own favorite store bought brand. I find that Health Valley canned vegetable broth works nicely and I always keep plenty in my pantry.)
½ cup tomato sauce, or to taste (Again, use your favorite homemade or packaged)
For passing at the table (all optional):
Grated Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
Extra olive oil
Extra ground pepper
Extra red pepper flakes
Cook pasta according to directions until slightly under-done. Strain and set aside.
Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot. When hot, add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about two minutes. Do not brown.
Add celery, salt, pepper and pepper flakes and sauté until celery is bright green, about five minutes.
Add stock, bring to boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add beans, bring back to boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and simmer 20 minutes.
Stir in pasta and tomato sauce. Remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes, uncovered.
Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
For optional additional seasonings at the table, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of cheese and top with a twist of the pepper mill. Add red pepper flakes if you like more spice.
Trying different bean combinations is one way to vary the soup. Another excellent way is to add some chopped greens, such as spinach or escarole, at the end of the cooking process, about 5 minutes before removing from heat.
This recipe will make 6 to 8 servings, depending on how big your bowls are. Tightly sealed, it will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. In storage, the flavors will blend and intensify and the soup will thicken. Each time you reheat, add some water or more stock to reach desired consistency.