Whether pasta e fagioli — literally, pasta and beans — is an Italian soup with pasta in it or a pasta sauced with beans is a matter of proportion and preference. I like it as a soup thick with beans and pasta.
The notion of two starches combining to become an Italian staple at first seems difficult to fathom. But try pasta e fagioli. This dish of modest ingredients is capable of providing great pleasure and satisfaction.
Creamy beans give way to pasta’s toothsome give. Seasonings of aromatic rosemary, tangy tomato, garlic, and sometimes pancetta or prosciutto infuse the mellow beans. As they cook, the beans exude a silky broth that absorbs garnishes of green olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
When I want to make soup into a one-dish dinner, I turn to pasta e fagioli. Its ingredients are easy to find or make substitutions for. Its bean-and-grain combo provides a vegetarian protein. Making it can be as easy as simmering cannellini beans with garlic, tomato, and rosemary, and then cooking a short, hollow pasta such as tubetti or macaroni in the beans.
When I want vegetables, too, I serve bowlfuls with a small pile of garlicky sautéed greens on top. Kale, dandelions, or broccoli rabe are good choices. I have also added cubes of the last of the winter squash to the simmering beans, with rich results.
The only deal-breaker to making a decent pasta e fagioli is that you have to begin with dried beans. There is no way around this. Only from-scratch beans get buttery and meaty, and that’s what you want for a soulful soup.
If you don’t have a pressure cooker to cook your beans quickly, split the project in two: cooking and freezing the beans, then defrosting and reheating the beans. I like to make a big batch of beans and then divide them among several small plastic containers ranging from 2 to 8 cups in size. In the smaller containers, frozen beans thaw quickly.
When you pack the beans, add some of their cooking liquid, which seems to help them remain intact throughout the freeze/thaw cycle. Let the cooked beans cool to room temperature before covering them, to avoid condensation, and fill the containers only three-quarters full.
With cooked beans on hand, pasta e fagioli becomes a dish of convenience. You can quickly sauté a soffritto of onions, garlic, and parsley (and pancetta if you like), and then simmer this base and some canned plum tomatoes with the beans for a bit before adding the pasta.
Here are a few other suggestions for making the ingredients you have work for you:
So forget the long list of ingredients. Sometimes soup — and dinner — is as simple as pasta and beans.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.