It’s meant to be spring, for heaven’s sake. But I’ve been told this is the coldest March on record in Italy for 50 years; the soil is still winter-cold and far too damp to – for example – plant potatoes which I tried and failed to do the other day. Instead, I spend my time inside, waiting for the sun to come, cheering myself up thinking that the UK is far far worse off, and making the wintriest of soups to keep warm. Such as pasta e fagioli.
This is the most basic of comforting soups and as such has been developed in many ways by its many practitioners. I have probably departed still further from the ‘norm’ in a way that purists might frown at. But my pasta e fagioli is the result of almost 30 years of trial and error so why, I ask, should mine be considered any less justified than the many other versions?
Fresh borlotti beans – 1.25 kg unshelled weight
Onion – 1 large
Carrots – 3
Garlic – 2 cloves
Pasta – 200 g
Vegetable stock cube or vegetable stock
Bay leaves – 4
Parmesan cheese for serving
Courgette – 2
Spinach or kale – about 10-15 leaves
I like to make this with fresh beans when they’re available – and I extend availability by buying up lots when they’re in season and stashing them in the freezer. They freeze superbly – out of their pods, raw, in plastic bags – and lose none of the slightly graininess of their texture when you eventually take them out and cook them. If you’re using beans which are already de-podded, you’ll need about 400-500g for four people.
Peel the onion and garlic and chop them finely. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and fry the onion and garlic over a medium heat until they’re soft but not browned. Now throw in the beans and the carrots which should be peeled and diced quite small. Toss everything in the oil for a minute or two, add the beans and then pour in sufficient water or stock to cover the vegetables abundantly – there should be two or three centimetres of liquid above the veg. Put the bay leaves in at this point, and the stock cube too if you’re using it.
Leave everything to bubble, covered, over a low-to-medium heat for 20 minutes or so; it shouldn’t take much more than this for the vegetables, including the beans, to be perfectly soft. You may have to add a little more liquid.
Now put a couple of ladles of liquid and vegetables into a goblet and whizz them with a stick blender until they form a smooth paste. Poured back into the saucepan, this will give the soup a slightly thicker consistency than the traditional pasta e fagioli.
I also like to break the rules by adding a note of green to the soup: either a courgette (zucchini) halved long-ways then sliced across into fine half-moons; or spinach leaves with the toughest bits of stalk cut off; or kale with its hard central rib removed and the leaves sliced cross-ways into thin strips. These, however, are entirely optional. If you’re using them, add them to the soup at this point.
Now it’s important to get the consistency right. You are about to cook pasta in the soup, so you may need to add more liquid or risk finding the thing turning into a gluey mess. But as the end result should be like thick creamy soup rather than runny broth with bits in, it’s safer to add less liquid now and top it up (boiling is best as it won’t stop the pasta cooking) as you go along.
Bring the soup back to a very gentle bubbling temperature and add the pasta. Ideally, this should be something very small intended for soups, such as ditalini. But anything will do really: you can break spaghetti up into short pieces, or you can take any pasta shape, put it in a paper bag, and give it a quick going-over with a heavy rolling pin or hammer to break it down a bit. Tip it into your soup and keep the bubbling going for as long as it takes to cook the pasta, stirring it all frequently to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pot and/or turning into a gluggy pudding.
Serve the pasta e fagioli piping hot, with a swirl of olive oil, lots of freshly ground black pepper and plenty of grated parmesan.
©Anne Hanley, 2013