Pasta e fagioli varies from region to region and even household to household and generation to generation, but the idea is the same: Cooked beans (better, of course, if you cook them yourself from dried or fresh beans, but, otherwise, a can will do), partially reduced to a thick and creamy puree, are cooked with some tomato puree, enough to make it blush. This thick sauce of whole and pureed beans with short pasta swimming in it is somewhat halfway between a soup and a pasta dish, suitable for eating with a spoon.
What changes are the other additions—sometimes this is cooked with a soffritto of celery, onion and carrot and other times with finely chopped garlic and parsley as its base.
In the Veneto, when this was a traditional fall dish and it coincided with the seasonal butchering of pigs, this was be flavored with cotenna or pig skin. Today, you can often find pancetta or prosciutto, in thin strips, sizzled together with the soffritto. A piece of Parmesan rind is often thrown into the simmering sauce to add flavor. To keep this dish vegetarian or vegan, simply leave these out and use vegetable stock instead of water. Grated cheese on top of this pasta dish is entirely optional—my Tuscan mother-in-law never likes to mix cheese with beans. She says it masks the flavor too much.
You can also make this with dried beans (it's the best way, really, but for convenience's sake, the recipe here is for already cooked beans). If you’re using dried borlotti beans, put them in a bowl covered with plenty of fresh cold water the night before and leave them to soak in the fridge. The next day, drain and place them in a saucepan, cover with fresh water, add a bay leaf and simmer for a couple of hours or until the beans are tender. Add salt to taste at the end. Don’t throw away the cooking liquid – this is gold and you should use it in place of the stock or water. —Emiko
extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
small red onion, finely chopped
celery stick, finely chopped
small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
slices of pancetta, cut into thin strips (optional)
(400 grams) cooked and drained borlotti beans (note that a regular size can normally holds 240 grams of beans)
In a casserole pot, gently saute the chopped onion, celery and carrot in the olive oil with a good pinch of salt. Let the vegetables soften without colouring, about 5-10 minutes. Add the pancetta, if using, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, letting the pancetta sizzle until it is transparent.
Add the drained beans, along with the tomato puree and the water (or stock or bean liquid if you have cooked them yourself). Bring to a simmer and cook 15 minutes.
Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta.
Remove about half of the bean mixture and blend until creamy (alternatively, if you have an immersion blender, stick it straight in the pot and blend about half of the sauce). If it has reduced too much and is looking too thick (like a dip rather than a soup), add some more water until it is like a creamy soup. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm while you boil the pasta.
Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling water. Check the timing recommended on the package and take off roughly 2 minutes. Drain the pasta and add it to the beans and let it continue cooking another minute. Ladle into shallow bowls, pour over a drizzle of your very best extra-virgin olive oil, some extra freshly ground pepper, and then let it sit for a moment or two before serving (it needs to cool a little to be best enjoyed). Serve this pasta dish with a spoon.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.