There is a legend that says that without beans there may have been no Renaissance. Varieties of pulses had been grown in Europe since ancient times but new varieties of beans, along with potatoes and tomatoes, had just arrived from the Americas, providing a welcome boost to the diet during the 15th Century – the protein injection that artists and artisans needed for the cultural rebirth. The dates don’t actually add up to support this theory; Columbus came back from the Americas in 1493, while the Florentine Duomo was opened in 1436. However it is true that Lorenzo de Medici encouraged the cultivation of beans as a means of improving his citizens’ diet.
Beans: cannellini, borlotti, fave, zolfini, are a solid pillar of the Italian table from north to south, and Pasta e Fagioli is made all over Italy in different guises. The soffritto base of finely diced onion, carrots plus celery and the beans is the blank canvas with which each cook gives their Pasta e Fagioli its own personality with the inclusion of pancetta (or not), the amount of tomato concentrate or passata di pomodoro, the use of vegetable stock or solely the bean water. There is the cook that tosses in an old rind of parmigiano, the cook that prefers short pasta, and the cook that breaks sheets of lasagna all’uovo into roughly cut pieces. Some cooks puree the soup, some leave it as is, while others do a mix of the two. When the gorgeous mottled borlotti are in season in high summer and into autumn, the soup has a heightened creamy nuttiness, but whatever the particular nuance the result is that everyone’s favourite version is always that made by a family member.
I distinctly remember the first time Leonardo cooked it for me and I can admit now to having thought it sounded a bit monotonous in both tone and flavor (before having tried it). Leonardo, though, is an excellent maker of soups and knows how to build the layers of flavor which render them wonderful. In the case of Pasta e Fagioli, which is sort of half soup half pasta – it all starts with the soffritto which is cut very finely and with great care. Into the soffritto can go a little diced pancetta, which adds depth, and a couple of sprigs of rosemary which balance beautifully with the pancetta.
It is wonderful cooked in a terra-cotta cooking pot and is often served in terra-cotta bowls, which add to the rustic charm. Served in just about anything it is like a giant hug from a grandfather; warm, satisfying, uncomplicated but never boring, and just what you feel like on certain days.
Pasta e Fagioli
1 small brown onion – finely chopped
50 g pancetta – diced
1 stalk of celery – finely chopped
1 carrot – finely chopped
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cloves of garlic – peeled and squashed
4 tablespoons tomato passata
250 g borlotti beans (equivalent of 500 g cooked beans, 400 g fresh beans)
200 g egg lasagna broken into rough pieces (or other pasta)
1.5 litre vegetable stock plus bean water
Extra virgin olive oil – 2 tablespoons
Salt and pepper – to taste
Firstly the beans:
Dried: Soak the borlotti beans overnight. Rinse and cook covered in plenty of water for an 80 to 100 minutes, adding a tablespoon of salt at the end of the cooking process. They should be cooked al dente – they will continue to cook as the soup is assembled.
Fresh: Cook for 30 minutes before adding to the soup.
Canned: for an on the run pasta e fagioli; rinse beans well before adding to soup.
While the beans are cooking make a simple vegetable stock by simmering 1500 ml of water with a carrot, black peppercorns, a stalk of celery with leaves and half and onion.
Very finely chop the vegetables for the soffritto. In a terra-cotta cooking pot or a good heavy based pan fry off the pancetta (optional) in one tablespoon of olive oil, then add another tablespoon of oil and the chopped onion, carrot and celery, reduce the heat and gently sauté until the vegetables are translucent. At this point add the tomato sauce and stir well, and then add a litre of vegetable stock and the cooked beans (keep the beans’ cooking water) and cook over a medium flame for about half an hour.
Some people puree all of the soup but I like to remove just one third of the soup, blend it quickly with a hand held blender before returning it to the pot. Add more stock or bean water and bring the soup up to the boil. Add the pasta, which can be any kind but broken lasagna al’uovo or tagliatelle work nicely, while ditalini (little thimbles) are also popular. Make sure the soup is liquid enough to cook the pasta, add extra bean water or vegetable stock if you need to lengthen it.
When the pasta is al dente everything should be given a good 5-10 minute rest before serving with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.