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Monday, October 31, 2011

Pasta Fa---Who?

   Pasta Fagioli is a traditional Italian bean soup with pasta, or macaroni to some. Well, that might be what it is traditionally, but if you know anything about me, my household likes to go non-traditional at times. This is one of those times.
   As a child the word "bean" would normally send me running, I am quite embarrassed to admit, and once I really tasted beans, as an adult, I decided I had been missing this wonderful nutritious-packed food item in my diet. 
   Beans are high in iron, and many B Vitamins that are now known  to stave off certain cancers and birth defects. Beans are loaded with fiber, which keeps you regular, and helps to remove cholesterol from your body, they are a low-to-no-fat food, depending on the variety, AND coupled with a grain (bread or pasta) they form a complete protein.  Wow, the power of beans! Now that we've had the nutrition lesson, let get back to the Pasta Fagioli. 
   Traditionally, pasta fagioli is made without meat, being paired with pasta, as I stated in the previous paragraph, it forms a complete protein. This made pasta fagioli a perfect meal when meat was scarce, or too expensive to include in the everyday diet of peasants. So when Grandma said it was good for you, she knew what she was talking about. Like I said earlier, this household is anything but traditional and we tend to break rules, or stretch them might be a better way to say it, but my late Mother-in-law always made her pasta fagioli with ground beef. Upon hearing this I thought, well, let's just say I thought it was "odd". But it was definitely delicious. Unfortunately, Ethel passed away without divulging her secrets for a good pasta fagioli. My husband and I embarked on the quest to recreate her pasta fagioli. There was no internet at the time, no Internet Explorer, or Firefox, or Google, and no TV Food Network, either, believe it or not. We had to look through cook books, both purchased and borrowed. And we did a lot of testing.
   Most tests were edible, but they lacked that one little ingredient that made the whole dish come together with just that certain...mmmmm factor.
   Finally, and quite innocently, we found the one ingredient that made the soup taste like Ethel's. Green peppers. Not red or yellow or Italian or hot. Just ordinary green bell peppers. Without them, it is a bean soupy thing, edible but just not special. Another little trick I started was to not add the pasta to the soup. If there was any leftover the pasta would soak up all the broth, while sitting in the fridge and become mushy--we didn't like that. I now make the pasta separately. Once drained I put a teaspoon of olive oil in the pasta to keep it from sticking and serve the pasta in a bowl, then drown it with the soup. The "eater" can mix it up or leave it in layers. Oh, and pass the grating cheese. Coupled with homemade Italian or French bread, buttered, and you have one of those comfort foods that ranks right up there with Macaroni and Cheese or Chicken and Biscuits. 
   Occasionally we do add red or yellow peppers, if we happen to have them, but without green peppers, we don't even bother to make it. Period. We have also added sliced cooked sausage and a tablespoon of dried crushed red pepper to give it some kick, and the results just keep getting better and better. How about you? What do you add to your pasta fagioli to make it "yours"?

Ethel's Pasta Fagioli
  • 2 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 3/4 lb. lean ground beef
  • 4 sweet Italian sausage cut into thin slices, cooked and drained
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 2 large Green Bell peppers, seeded and sliced into strips or diced- your choice-separated
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Two 28 oz. cans tomatoes--diced, crushed, or whole peeled - your choice
  • One can water
  • 2-3 15 oz. cans kidney beans (or black or red beans) rinse & drain 1 can
  • 1 tablespoon beef base (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon dried crushed red pepper (optional)
  • parsley, basil, salt and pepper to your own liking or omit
  • cooked short pasta--your choice--and please AL DENTE!
  • Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated for the table
In  a soup pot heat the olive oil, add the ground beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Brown the meat thoroughly. Add the onions and sweat until they become sweet. You can let them start to brown around the edges. Toss in the garlic and stir until it becomes fragrant. Add the sausage that has already been cooked, and add one of the green peppers. Stir over medium heat for a few minutes until the peppers start to soften. If there is a lot of excess oil, drain it now, but we usually don't have much left by now. Add the 2 cans of tomatoes, breaking them up with the back of the wooden spoon. Add the water, the bay leaf, the beef base, and the cans of beans. Bring up to a simmer and simmer on low for about an hour. You can add the parsley and basil, but do not add any salt yet. You have to let the flavors marry before you can judge if it needs salt. Many times it does not, because the liquid from the canned beans has a lot of sodium--that is why I don't use all of the liquid from the cans. I add the dried crushed red pepper and the rest of the green peppers, and let it continue to simmer another 30 minutes, or as long as it takes to bring a separate pot of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni.
  Drain the macaroni, put it back in its pot, or a bowl, add 1 teaspoon olive oil and toss.
   To serve, spoon a few serving spoonfuls of pasta into individual bowls, ladle soup (oh, pull out the bay leaf and discard) over top. Top with grated cheese--we use Pecorino Romano, but its your kitchen use whatever you like! Served with fresh Italian or French bread, butter, and a tossed salad, you have perfection!
   Thank you, Ethel, we miss you!

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