Pasta fagioli (pasta with beans) or "pasta fazool" as some might pronounce it, is an old dinner staple in Italian households everywhere and also yet another dish that will always remind me of my youth and life growing up on Long Island. It was an inexpensive meal that my mother could prepare an abundance of quickly with the use of remaining gravy from Sunday's elaborate feast and because we always had pasta in the house. It was common, delicious and something all of my friends ate as much as I did. I've been in Orlando, FL since 1996 but I still find it funny how so many are unfamiliar with this dish. Unlike my Long Island life, most of my friends here are unsurprisingly not Italian. Yet, I continue to find myself shocked when we are together and sharing stories of our childhood, realizing that it's only me who recalls how Struffoli were the first signs of the Christmas season. It's only me who won't forget chilly nights in church parking lots during an Italian feast, pulling the tabs off of those little gambling tickets as I waited in line to buy piping hot zeppoles. It's only me who remembers the intense steam from that zeppole bag that would escape to the cold, even though I held it so tightly as I shook the powdered sugar around. It's memories like these that I'll never forget and memories that I wish everyone I knew could relate to. I only began to understand how not to take those memories for granted once I moved here and found that no one else had these to reflect on. I know everyone has memories near and dear to their heart as they were growing up in different regions and I won't dare try to take those away from them. What I'm saying is that I'm truly grateful for the experiences I had and the culturally influential ways in which they will always inspire me and live on through my food. Although I enjoy preparing meals that aren't always what I grew up on, I'll never turn my back on the traditions that made me what I am today and will continue to fill the bellies of others with the warm history of my past in hopes that they could appreciate it too, even if just a little. The base of the dish consists simply of: garlic, onion, olive oil, cannellini beans, stewed tomatoes/sauce, parmigiano and pasta (typically a small pasta such as Ditalini). By now, most of you have seen it on menus at Italian restaurants, although it's usually billed as a soup and not a meal. The versatility of the ingredients allow it to pass for either, however when you are making it, it's your decision how you'd prefer to eat it. In my home, we always ate it as a meal and a rather hearty meal it was. To this day, it's something I make often, both when time is of the essence and when I'm craving a comfort food.
Every now and then, I like to change it up a bit, if for no other reason but curiosity. Don't get me wrong, there isn't much to change with this Italian classic but in this case, my spin was roasting my tomatoes (instead of a pre-made sauce) and using a linguine pasta, I know, I know...not really a big spin.
I start by turning my oven up to 400 and prepping a tray of 8 plum tomatoes (halved) rubbed with some olive oil, salt and pepper. They roast for about 30 minutes or until nicely charred. While the tomatoes are in the oven, I prepare a large pan coated with olive oil. I chop one onion into small dices and saute until translucent. I then add 4 cloves of crushed garlic and a healthy sprinkle of crushed red pepper. I like spice, so I always add a dash of cayenne for another layer of heat. Of course if you are sensitive to it, it can be omitted. As all of these flavors meld together in the pan, I then add one can of drained cannellini beans. If you aren't a fan of beans, I would recommend that you at least try a cannellini. It's a white bean that resembles the well known kidney bean, except for the color. I don't love black beans or baked beans but I am a BIG fan of cannellini. It's a native Italian bean with a very creamy consistency. It's got a ton of flavor and makes for an amazingly easy whipped dip or spread when blended with a few other ingredients that is always a crowd pleaser...even for vegetarians.
Back to my stove top, I stir my beans well to incorporate the onion, garlic and spices. I check on my tomatoes and they look perfect! I add them to the pan and stir once again. I like to mash them up a bit so that the juices of the tomato spread throughout the pan to give it a pinkish hue, while not pulverizing it so that it becomes nothing more than a sauce and still has texture. If you didn't use roasted tomato, you would simply add a bit of red sauce to give it that pop of tomato color. At this moment, I like to starting adding my cheese. With the beans so creamy, the added cheese further enhances it, almost becomes a version of Italian mac and cheese I suppose, without it become too heavy. I love to watch the shavings of parmigiano disappear as they melt into the beans. I drop my heat to a very low simmer at this point now that all of my ingredients are cooked. I boil my pasta and scoop it up with a pasta fork when it's ready and transfer it directly into the pan. You should never drain pasta completely of its water into a strainer and then back into a pan. A small bit of water on the pasta is actually a good thing, the water is starchy and helps it adhere to any sauce you are adding it to. As I continue to stir my pasta in the pan, I also add some more cheese. There is no right or wrong amount of cheese. Taste it as you go, let your taste buds be the judge and add salt and pepper as you see fit. The very final touches for me when plating are always a few shreds of basil, pretty shavings of parmigiano and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve with a crusty piece of Italian bread and nice Chianti. Enjoy!