Why is pasta e fagioli one of my favourite soups?
It must be something about the texture. While it has its own soothingly earthy flavour, the pureed bean substrate upon which this soup is built has the strength to carry, on its back, like some culinary magic carpet, the salty bite of pancetta, the kick of onion and pepper, the zing of tomato and the sweet tang of chicken stock. It even manages to encapsulate a breath of fresh herbs which rises from the finished soup like flowers and grass jumping out of a newly uncorked bottle of sauvignon blanc. Then, as you eat the soup, the tiny, soft pasta shapes work like little gear wheels, agitating and amplifying all the tastes. In terms of flavour, pasta e fagioli is not so much a symphony as a 3.8 litre engine driven through a six-speed gearbox.
Because I am a creature of habit, I regularly eat pasta e fagioli at Papa Gino’s, where it is accompanied by a basket of crusty, chewy, fresh Italian bread and little foil-wrapped pats of butter. If you think pasta e fagioli tastes good on a spoon, try dredging some buttered bread through it. (Once I had a quite bad pasta e fagioli at a formulaic pizza-and-pasta Italian place in Sydney Road. Twenty undercooked beans looked like tiny boats trying not to sink in a becalmed sea of Heinz tomato soup. Pasta e fagioli is the litmus test of every decent Italian eatery, and the question it asks is: is mother cooking in the kitchen or not?
Here’s my current favourite recipe for pasta e fagioli. You will need: a large pot; six slices of hot (spicy) pancetta; six spring onions; a third of a cup-plus of olive oil; a teaspoon each of chopped parsley, oregano and rosemary; a can of diced tomatoes; four cans of cannellini beans; four cups-plus of chicken stock; salt and pepper and a cup of small pasta. I like stellini - little stars.
Chop the pancetta and spring onions and add them to the olive oil in a large pot along with the parsley, oregano and rosemary. Cook gently for five minutes. Mmm, aroma!
Now add the tomatoes and cannellini beans (two cans of beans with their liquid and two drained) and four cups of chicken stock or broth. Bring to boil and simmer twenty minutes, then puree or mouli. You can do this in sections; alternatively you can puree just a percentage of the whole. Return to pot, add salt and pepper and bring to boil. Now add the pasta. Add more chicken stock if necessary.
Cook until pasta is just done and no more.
Serve, topped with your choice of options: (a) a drizzle of olive oil, (b) chopped parsley, (c) grated parmesan, or (d) a shower of grated black pepper. I prefer no options; but you might like all four. And why not?
Wine? Red or white. Doesn’t matter.
Don't forget the buttered bread. And end the meal with a perfectly made espresso coffee.