A simple bowl of beans floating in a steaming vegetable broth, accompanied by the occasional tube-shaped pasta served in ceramic bowls meant for caffè latte in the morning. . . . . .
These are the comforts of home in a season where blankets of grey clouds cover the almost forgotten blue-summer skies. As the morning mist lingers for hours above the rivers and canals, I stay tucked away inside in the luxury of grey woollen socks. Compositions of candles and spices on worn silver trays go hand in hand with rearranging the pantry shelves to fit in glass jars filled with grains, beans and chestnut flour.
I find myself wishing I were back in Caldogno with the purple-mountain-horizon of the Veneto as my backdrop. This is the grape-harvest-time of year and the perfect moment for pasta e fagioli. The following simple supper was introduced to our table by my mother’s best friend Melia and has been a constant factor in our family’s recipe box repertoire for as long as I can remember. If you happen to find fresh borlotti beans still tucked away in their red-marbled pods be sure to make this soup with them. If autumn’s most beautiful bean is no longer available at the farmers market or your home garden, just soak a bowl of dried borlotti for eight hours before getting started with cooking.
Ingredients (for four to six)
- 250 grams of borlotti beans shelled or dried
- four celery stalks about 200 grams in weight
- one small ripened tomato
- one small potato
- two fresh bay leaves
- 25 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 25 grams unsalted butter
- the leaves of one sprig of rosemary
- three small carrots about 125 grams in weight
- one generous teaspoon of Celtic sea salt
- black pepper to taste
- two red onions
- 750-1000 ml water or homemade vegetable broth
- 75 grams ditalini or tubetti pasta
- 50 grams Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or a local aged cheese from cow or sheep’s milk
Drain the soaked beans (if using) and put the beans in a pan, covering them with up to three centimeters of water. Add the bay leaves, tomato, potato and two stalks of celery. Bring the ingredients to a simmer and cook them at low heat until the inside of the bean is soft and the skins are still intact. Make a quick vegetable broth or simply heat some water to make the soup. Once the beans are tender, drain them in a colander. Remove the potato and tomato and mash them with a fork. Discard the celery and bay leaves. Take half of the beans and purée them in the vegetable broth (or water) with an immersion blender. Put the whole and mashed beans along with the potato-tomato purée in the broth-bean mix and season with a teaspoon of sea salt.
Meanwhile, remove the strings from the remaining celery stalks with a vegetable knife and cut them lengthwise into ribbons. Wash and peel the carrots, cut them in half and then into strips the same width as the celery. Peel the onions, cut them in half, leaving the root intact and lay them cut side down on a cutting board. Cut finely spaced vertical ribbons into onion from top to bottom, without cutting through to the root. Slice the onion vertically into a fine dice. Dice the carrot and celery strips the same size of the onion. Pick the sprigs of rosemary and chop them very fine with a sharp knife. Alternatively use a pinch of homemade rosemary salt to flavor the diced onion-carrot-celery soffritto.
Melt the butter and warm the olive oil in a pan. Add the diced onion, carrot and celery and sautee at low heat with the chopped rosemary for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions have softened and become lightly caramelized. Grate the Parmesan cheese on a fine grater and set aside in a bowl. Bring a small pan of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain the pasta and stir it into the soup ingredients. Add the caramelized soffritto. Taste the soup, sea salt and freshly ground pepper black pepper for a perfect savory balance.
Fill your favorite caffè’ latte bowl with the warm pasta e fagioli and top it off with a heaping spoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Add a handful of steamed spinach to your soup for a fresh green color and flavor. Serve the soup as a simple main course or as part of a substantial lunch. The soup will taste even better after cooling off. Pasta e fagioli can be saved up to four days in the refrigerator and mellows over time.
In the Veneto, pasta e fagioli often has a fried pancetta base. My mother and her best friend didn’t find it necessary and so I still prefer it without.
Borlotti beans are also known as cranberry beans, due to their speckled pinkish flesh and their undeniably sweet flavor. They originally came to Italy in the early 1500’s, arriving from America along with so many ingredients that we long consider to be European, such as the tomato, potato and corn. Borlotti are the most popular beans in Italy.
Places to go and things to see
In the Italian province of Belluno, just north of Congeliano (homeland of the Prosecco) you will find the very best of the borlotti. In this region, in the area of Vigevano and in the small town of Lamon, borlotti carry a stamp of quality and place of origin designated by the title of Indicazione Geografica Protteta, abbreviated with IGP which basically refers to a product of protected origin. When out and about in Italy, pack your suitcase with local IGP products to fortify and diversify your home pantry.
I promise to write all about the soffritto soon ! For the moment suffice it to say that it is a trio of simple ingredients that create a savory and unique flavor. When added to soups and stews, it acts like simple magic.
This recipe was originally published in a shortened version on Jamie Magazine NL on October 16th 2015.