Italian Beans and Pasta in Soup

When I worked in New York City and had a home in Connecticut, an essential Winter-time stop on the way up to "the country" was at Patsy's pizza parlor in East Harlem — the original, not the chain. The best pasta e fagioli was offered not only to eat in but also to take out there. I'd pick up eight quarts at a time; two for immediate consumption, and six destined for the freezer, for lucky dinner guests later on. It's hard not to make good pasta e fagiole. The biggest mistakes are: a) using canned beans that are already in some sort of sauce, and b) using oregano (this is a northern Italian dish).

The other day I landed upon the website for the inimitable Rao's restaurant (also in East Harlem). I was shocked to find that their recommended recipe for this dish calls for chicken stock. Heck, I'll forgive them, it was probably for the sake of making it fast and easy for their fans. When I dined at the place in the '80s, I'm pretty sure that the late Vincent Rao used veal or mixed stock to make this soup and his famous beans and escarole.

My buddy Tony has the guys at the Italian delicatessen save the bones from bone-in prosciutto for him to make this dish. However, prosciutto bones are almost as rare as hen's teeth. Suffice it to say that Tony's version of the soup is very, very good.

Here are two recipes for this delicious Italian soup, often mistakenly called "pasta fazool" but not pronounced as it is spelled (thanks, smartalix). The first recipe takes a lot of work - but the good news is that it freezes well. And if reading it whets your appetite you can prepare the quick version, below.

Pasta e fagioli I

Time: 2 days

For the stock:

  • 2 lbs. Veal shank bones, with meat, cut into manageable pieces
  • 4 colossal, big fat sweet onions, skin on, chopped into 2" chunks
  • 2 big fat carrots, skin on, chopped into 2" chunks
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped into 2" chunks
  • A half cup of olive oil

For the soup:

  • One pound dried cannellini or other dried white beans ("great northern")
  • Two bay leaves
  • One pound of ditalini (small tubes) pasta
  • A half cup good olive oil
  • Three cloves of garlic, skinned by smashing them
  • A big fat sweet onion, diced to 1/4" size
  • A carrot, diced into 1/4" pieces
  • 2 ribs of celery, diced into 1/4" pieces
  • A half cup of prosciutto, minced to 1/8" size
  • A quarter cup of chopped basil leaves, or 1/8 cup of the dried leaves
  • Two more bay leaves
  • A cup of white wine
  • A 28-ounce (No. 10) can of good-quality crushed San Marzano tomatoes "in tomato sauce" or in puree
  • A quarter cup of Pecorino Romano cheese
  • The zest (rind) of half a lemon, minced finely
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method:

Place the first five ingredients in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate them with enough room to stir them up so as to coat the ingredients with the oil. Brown in a 400 degree oven for no more than an hour. When done, transfer the contents of the roasting pan to a large stock pot. Place the roasting pan over a stove burner and add water. Scrape with a wooden spatula to remove all the browned bits from the pan. Add the water and browned bits from the pan to the stock pot. Fill the stock pot with cold water to cover the bones by about five inches. Bring the stock pot to a boil. When the stock pot boils, use a spoon to remove any scum that rises to the top. Bring the flame down as low as it will go, and keep the pot barely simmering for at least eight hours (better twelve hours).

Pick through the dried beans to separate stones or imperfect beans. Place the beans in cold water to soak overnight, changing the water once.

Once the stock is cooked, strain it into another container but leave out to get to room temperature before refrigerating or it will become cloudy. Once it's refrigerated the veal fat will rise to the top, and will solidify. It can be easily removed but this will diminish the flavor a bit.

To make the soup, start by boiling the beans and two bay leaves in about five cups of water until the beans are very tender. Add a cup of water and a little salt, and the pasta, and cook for eight minutes more. Drain the beans and pasta, reserving one cup of the cooking water, set aside.

In the soup pot (capacity should be about six cups), add the olive oil, garlic and the diced onion, carrot, celery, prosciutto, and basil, and the bay leaves. Saute these ingredients just until the onions become clear. Do not brown. Add the white wine and cook for five minutes. Add the beans, the pasta, and the cup of cooking water to the pot, along with a lot of the stock, the tomatoes (the entire contents of the can), the cheese and the lemon rind. At this point add about a tablespoon of salt. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. Check the seasoning; add black pepper.

Cook the soup down until it's as thick as you like. Serve garnished with minced fresh basil leaf. This soup is always better the next day.

Variation: Saute some escarole in olive oil and plop a large spoonful into the center of each bowl of soup. If you omit the pasta from the soup and add escarole, you have beans and escarole, another superb Italian dish, however, it must be served immediately, and doesn't heat over well.
 

Pasta e fagioli II

  • Olive oil for sauteeing
  • Chopped prosciutto, pancetta, ham, or bacon (in a pinch)
  • A big fat sweet onion, minced into 1/4" dice
  • 2 Tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped into 1/4" dice
  • A clove of garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbs. dried or 4 Tbs. fresh basil leaves, chopped fine
  • 2 Cups of cooked Ditalini pasta (or small elbows or small pasta of any type)
  • A large can of Progresso Cannellini Beans or two small cans of white beans - don't drain the can's liquid
  • Two Knorr-Swiss Chicken Bouillon Cubes (or better, 1 Chicken and 1 Beef) — Knorr-Swiss is the very best.

Method:

In the bottom of a large pot, heat the olive oil and saute the prosciutto, onion, tomato and garlic until the onion clarifies. Add the rest of the ingredients, and four cups water, and cook until thickened, the longer the better. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a good loaf of Italian bread.

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