Tuesday, September 7, 2010


“What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure…”
--Nora Ephron, Heartburn

I went to Venice last weekend. It was… I don’t have words. Or rather, I have too many words, and it’s going to take me some time to figure out which ones I want to use, so I’m afraid those of you reading this will have to be patient in waiting for the post(s) on La Serenissima. But it was amazing.

I left in a hurry on Friday, after school and a thoroughly delightful but longer-than-planned farewell lunch for a classmate. (Note to self: aperitivo + gnocchi + hot afternoon sunshine on Piazza Brà = a sluggish Buongustaia.) Starting with the mad dash from my apartment to the Verona train station, and ending with the mad dash through inscrutable Venetian alleyways to catch the last train home, the weekend was a nonstop blur of activity. I will spare you the lamentations for my poor, achy, blistered little feet, because the weekend was worth every blister! I had school Monday morning, of course, and after class, I was still groggy and sore. No energy to go out about town, and besides, I had things to do at home. The day was cool and overcast—almost no sunshine. Best way to fight the cloudy-day blues and post-travel fatigue? Cook!

One of my favorite cool-weather comfort foods is pasta e fagioli—pasta and beans. It’s warm and nourishing and soothing, like all the best soups, but it’s not quite a soup. When I had it in Rome it was beans and noodles and vegetables in a clear broth, soup-like, but in Northern Italy it’s more like a porridge, with the beans mashed, or simply cooked to the point of dissolution, to thicken the broth. In fact, the more I see of this dish in the North—both Tuscany and the Veneto claim it as their own—the more I think that the Roman version was gussied up for restaurant service, and not at all a typical preparation. But it was still delicious.

Borlotti are the beans traditionally used for this dish; in the US, cranberry beans make a fine substitute (they are similarly colored, white with rosy mottling). Pinto beans work in a pinch—I like them better than either cannellini or kidney beans, for color and texture—or you can use chickpeas and call it pasta e ceci. I actually already had a can of borlotti beans in the cupboard, thinking that, as the weather turned cooler, I might want to make this. But when I went to the vegetable market, they had fresh borlotti, and since they are in season, how could I pass them up?

I hadn’t been to the vegetable stalls in several days, since I needed to use up the produce I already had before leaving to Venice. It was, as always, fun and informative. I started with the carrots. The vendor bustled over and swatted my hands away. I was surprised, because normally customers are allowed to select their own vegetables. But she said, “Wait a minute—these carrots are no good. Let me get them out of the way for you.” She picked through the bin and selected half a dozen cracked or limp carrots, which she then laid to the side, and said, “There you go. Those others were ugly. These are beautiful. Go on, pick the ones you want.” So I did. And then I reached toward the celery: sturdy bunches with full heads of thick, dark green leaves. “You’re making a broth?” asked the vendor. I nodded, and she snapped two crisp stalks off at the root end and put them in the bag with the carrots. (This is totally brilliant, because while I like celery I don’t use it in that many things, and when I have to buy a whole bundle invariably it goes bad before I can use it all. Buying by the stalk is really ideal. Why don’t American grocers let you do that?) Next, “You need some onion.” This was not a question. “Red, white? How many?” “One white, please.” Garlic, or anything else? No, I had all that at home.

Pasta e fagioli is very easy to make, although it can be time-consuming. I usually make one of three versions: very slow, very fast, or not-too-slow.

The very slow version simply means that I start with dried beans and soak them and boil them. It takes hours, but then you get a bean broth, and it’s much tastier than canned beans. If I’m in a SlowFood mood, I also use homemade broth and (as I had it in Rome) scraps of fresh pasta dough instead of dried noodles.

The very fast version goes like this: Heat up some broth (chicken or veg, depending on your persuasion). Boil pasta in it. Whatever kind of pasta you have on hand. Smaller, shorter is better. If all you have is spaghetti or other noodles, just break them into little bits. When the pasta is cooked, add canned beans that have been rinsed and drained. Simmer a couple minutes until it’s all heated through, then season with salt and pepper, serve with a little olive oil and parmesan on top. It's a pale imitation of the real thing, but it’s still very tasty, and a great quick supper—takes barely 15 minutes, and I nearly always have the ingredients on hand.

The not-so-fast version makes a concession to the use of canned beans, and takes a little more patience than the fast-food version, but is more delicious and satisfying:

Start with a soffritto of onion, carrot, celery, and a couple cloves of garlic. There should also be herbs; at home I might use thyme, oregano and/or bay leaf, but since I didn't have any of that on hand I just used the celery leaves.

I need to take a moment here to say a few words about celery leaves. We’ve all had them in our kitchens, pretty much, because when we buy a bunch of celery it usually comes with the leaves. And most of us throw them away! Please, dear readers, do not neglect your celery leaves. They are fresh and herbaceous and aromatic and delicious. You can put them in salads (example: thin slivers of celery stalk, shavings of Parmesan, chopped celery leaves and parsley, dress with lemon juice and olive oil), or you can chop them up and throw them in with your soffritto or mirepoix or whatever cooking base you use. I always put celery leaves in my stocks. You can use it like any other herb in dressings, sauces, or even soft cheeses and compound butters. For example, there is a poem attributed to Vergil that describes a peasant’s lunch of cheese seasoned with garlic, oil, vinegar, salt, coriander, rue and comas apii graciles—celery’s delicate tresses. Delectable.

Anyway, back to our pasta e fagioli. Optional additions to the soffritto: a little tomato paste, a little lardo or guanciale, or, if you’re daring, a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Add broth or water, bring to a boil. Add the beans (rinsed and drained, if using canned; if using dried beans, add their cooking liquid too). Once the beans are heated through, this is the step where you mash the beans, if you want a thick soup. At home I use an immersion blender and give it a few quick pulses, not enough to purée the whole thing, just to break up about half the beans. La nonna would use an old-fashioned food mill. If you don’t have either of these implements, a potato masher works just fine. Naturally, the immersion blender goes straight in the pot, but if you want to use a mill or masher, take out about half the beans with a slotted spoon, mash them and then add them back in.

If you have enough broth, and depending on how soupy you want the dish you be, you can cook the pasta directly in the pot. I personally prefer to do it this way, as I’m a fan of one-pot meals, especially on busy weeknights. You can also cook the pasta separately, in salted water, and add it already cooked to the pot of beans. (This is also a terrific way to use up leftovers, if you have some plain cooked noodles lying around.) Once everything is cooked through and quite hot, check the seasoning, ladle into bowls, and dress with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and Parmesan.

This is the first time I’ve made pasta e fagioli with fresh beans, and they took almost an hour to cook—but still, much faster than dried, and with a creamier texture and subtler flavor. I made a big pot so I’ll be eating it all week, but I don’t expect to get tired of it anytime soon!

Oh, and let's not forget dessert: