Pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) is so widely known that many enthusiasts of Italian cuisine abroad believe it is more popular than spaghetti with tomato sauce. Its origins can be traced back to many parts of Italy, north and south alike, in a series of variations on the same theme, all of which however must include certain ingredients: dried or fresh beans, dried or freshly made pasta in short or mixed shapes, extra virgin olive oil and pepper.
Durum wheat was the first ingredient to turn up, around the first century B.C. The bean, however, was not so punctual: it came from America and was obliged to wait for Christopher Columbus to arrive in 1492. The bean managed to make it to the Old Continent around 1530, together with other crops such as tomatoes, potatoes and sweet peppers. In the XVI century, in fact, they all arrived in Europe. In the meantime durum wheat almost got tired of waiting.
The pulse-cereal combo makes an excellent complete meal, whose nutritional value is on a par with animal proteins; on the plus side, pulses contain extremely low quantities of saturated fats, in some cases none at all.
To blend or not to blend, this is the question. Since the predominant texture of this dish is the creaminess of the pulses, many recommend blending the beans partially while others claim that, if cooked properly (at least one hour) the creaminess will form naturally.
Pasta e fagioli soup recipe: some useful tips
In one way or another, the desired effect is that of a dish of creamed pulses. But let’s take a look at the method and the little secrets involved in its preparation.
- suitable beans are borlotti (aka cranberry), cannellini or tondini, a cultivar that is widespread in southern Italy. You can either use fresh beans or dried beans that have been previously left to soak. Both are better than the tinned variety.
- the secret lies in preparing a good base: a lighter one or a gutsier one. The former consists of oil, garlic, rosemary and chilli pepper; the latter substitutes the oil with lard or pork fat.
- bear in mind that you will need 80 g of boiled beans to serve 4 people; dried beans weigh only half as much.
- it is preferable to choose a mix of short pasta shapes or long shapes broken up into smaller pieces.
- whatever you do, never cook the pasta separately, but together with the beans and their cooking liquid for 5 or 6 minutes and then leave everything to rest for 10 minutes with the saucepan lid on. The pasta will continue to cook and the dish will acquire its ideal thickness.
This dish is experiencing a moment of glory, partly because the Mediterranean way of combining pasta with pulses is increasingly acknowledged as being healthy, but also because of its low cost and reputation as an ideal way to use up leftovers, since the original version invites you to mix whatever type of dried short pasta happens to be lurking in the pantry.
Besides, more and more frequently, it is shrugging off its working class associations to enter the menus of celebrity chefs. Anthony Genovese from Il Pagliaccio, in Rome, adds pigs’ trotters and pork rind, which he later removes and partly utilizes to make a little sautéed sauce to dress the pasta; the end result is surprisingly very light. Marianna Vitale, chef from Sud restaurant, in Naples, provides a touch of freshness to her version by adding ginger and mint, and using three different bean cultivars.
But the most aristocratic version is that of Massimo Bottura (picture above) who has made pasta e fagioli his signature dish. "I have condensed one of the dishes from my childhood in a small glass: each layer corresponds to a different reference. A journey through the experience of some great master chefs, starting from Paul Bocuse and terminating with Ferran Adrià, not forgetting the pasta e fagioli my granny used to make”.