La pasta e fagioli

Pasta e fagioli

Mare o montagna?

“Seaside or mountains?”

A common conversation topic, from an era where cheap air travel was not available and exotic destinations were out of reach.

In Italy we are spoiled: we have a huge choice of breathtaking landscapes and touristic destinations, to suit any taste. Seaside or mountains was a serious question, more of a lifestyle choice than a mere preference. Both had renewed health advantages and sought-after entertainment options, both had shortfalls and limitations. I’m pretty sure that the famed Italian TG1 (the leading news on TV) still airs a couple of times every summer an innovative service over the advantages of spending your holidays in one place as opposed to the other. Year after year the same footage, the same phrases: I can see them neatly folded, ready to be taken out of the archives at the appropriate time, together with ‘the festivity diet’, ‘heat wave alarm’, ‘Arctic frost alarm’, ‘la Maturita’ this year’ (high school diploma), and ‘Internet will make your child sick’.   Reassuring, in a way.

Most people used to spent their  holidays, at least in the North, in a place different from the one where they spent most of the year. Fresh air was supposed to be good for health.  Some families owned a second house, others rented an apartment or went to a hotel. It was not just a week’s holiday like it is most common in the rest of Europe. In Italy everything closed in August for a whole month: factories, offices, every shop and commerce, apart from those in the so called ‘localita’ di villeggiatura’, holiday places, of course. For them it was the busiest month of the year.

My family was no exception. We spent months away from Milan, its pollution and its unbearable, torrid heat.  We were mountain people: my father fell in love with the Alps when he was in his twenties and this is where he still spends every minute of his free time. I do understand it in a way, although I’ve grown to be a sea person. When I was a child the long, tiring, boring walks allowed me to discover something I could not have found in any other way. I saw the last shepherds, living in places to be reached only by walking: we bought cheese from them, and I can assure you that cheese bought after a five hour walk tastes completely different. I grew to understand the charms of loneliness, the silence, places remote and lost, where life style has barely changed in centuries. It was important to come to term with our basic needs, what they really are; the need for food, clean water and shelter, something difficult to grasp for a city child unless you show them, hands on. I also witnessed the most beautiful lawns and forests being destroyed by mass skying, year after year; I saw one by one our alpeggi being reached by skylifts and streets. You can’t stop modern times in the heart of Europe. But at least I saw it. And it is still there to be seen, in some remote places.

My father insisted on using some maps he brought home after serving in the Army. I think they were last updated after the first World War. In the meanwhile the paths have changed. A lot. Getting lost was a part of the fun for him, I guess, although I have to admit I didn’t buy this. In the meanwhile, I’ve grown to be very good with maps and path signals, and always bring satellite navigators if I can.

As much as I loved walking and foraging and exploring nearly forgotten villages, our mountain holidays had one big problem: rainy days. It can rain for weeks. One summer it never stopped for the whole three weeks we spent there. We never saw the nearby Monte Rosa.  It is not only that it is raining: usually the clouds will be right at the level of your head and you will be lost in a grey, foggy, miserable world. Funny enough I learned not to mind the rain at all when living in Wales. I guess the attitude is bound to change when it rains most days of the year; anyway it feels different, because in Wales it rarely rains the whole day and it is never very cold. Or maybe it is just that I love the sea, even when it is raining. In the mountains rain makes me feel miserable, although there was some comfort in this misery. The first one was curling in front of the fire with a good book. Another thing we did quite often was to drive down, but I did not like it too much because I suffered the car. It was never raining at the bottom of the valley, or in Switzerland, just the other side of the very high mountain. A friend used to joke that the Swiss had enough money to pay someone upstairs and get all the sun. Actually, we always ended up having a lot of friends in the mountains, because when it is raining all you can do is to socialize. And when you socialize, you eat together, of course. One of our closest friends over the years was a family with seven children, the majority of them adolescent males, and a variety of cousins and relatives and visiting friends. Sharing dinner or lunch with them was challenging. When we did, we almost invariably included pasta e fagioli in the menu. A filling, cheap dish, good hot or cold, easy to stretch in order to feed an army. And above all, so good you are ready to take yet another rainy day.

Pasta e fagioli is such a typical staple in Italian food, you could write a whole treatise on it. This is my family’s version, unabridged: feel free to make your own adjustments, because this is what every family is supposed to make; but do try this one, once. It is incredibly good in its simplicity. There are two versions of the recipe: in summer my mother uses both fresh and dried beans and the pasta e fagioli is served at room temperature, while in winter only dried beans are used, and it is served piping hot. The version with fresh beans is better in my opinion, even when served hot, and you can use frozen beans instead of the fresh ones. I can’t find fresh or frozen beans in Germany, so I only use dried beans: I puree half of them and leave the other half whole.
The kind of bean we use are the brown flecked, sweet flavoured borlotti beans (both my grandfathers used to comment on very good beans: ‘they taste like chestnuts!’). I can’t find them easily, but pinto bean are similar (although not the same, even the colour is more bland).
For the pasta, traditionally either a short one like ditalini is used, or home-made, irregular tagliatelle. I use all of them and don’t shy away from store-bought tagliatelle as well: the ones in the pictures are dried pappardelle made of durum wheat, no eggs, from the brand De Cecco.
How brothy this recipe is, is really to taste. It firms up when cooling, so the first time you eat it, it is quite liquid, and then the leftovers are much thicker.
Being this a family favourite since at least three generations, I’m sending it to Claire at Chez Cayenne for her new event, ‘House Favorites: Vegan': this dish is almost always vegan, but when ordering it in a restaurant make sure they did not add any pancetta while cooking the beans, a traditional variation. And being a pasta favourite, I cannot help sending this to Presto Pasta night, edition number 211, hosted by Theresa at the Food Hunter’s Guide to Cuisine.
Pasta e fagioli

Serves 2 with some leftovers
Ingredients:
200 gr dried beans
200 gr fresh beans (frozen ones work equally well if you can find them), or use 300 gr dried beans in total
2 white onions
2-3 ripe tomatoes, ideally san marzano
olive oil
black pepper
salt
1 bay leaf
100 gr dried pasta
Method:
Soak the dried beans overnight. Cook them (optionally in a pressure cooker) in plenty of water, with the bay leaf, the tomatoes, cut in half, and one of the onions, peeled. Optionally add some smoked pancetta skin, or other vegetables such as celery and carrot to make the broth richer. Don’t add any salt. When the beans are really soft (1 hour or so without pressure cooker, about 1/2 hour with) use a vegetable mill to sieve them to a runny puree. Include the vegetables within (take off the pancetta skin if using). I don’t have a vegetable mill so I use an immersion blender, but the texture is a bit different in this way. Add salt.
In the meanwhile, slice the other onion finely. Sautee it in a tablespoon of olive oil until soft but not brown, then add the fresh bean, shelled and washed. Cover with water and cook the beans until soft, topping up with water when needed (about 30 mins). Make sure the beans are soft but not overcooked, you want some texture there.
If you don’t have fresh beans cook more dried ones and leave about a third of them whole; sautee the onion separately or just omit it for speed.

Add the whole beans and onion to the soup, heat and adjust salt. You want quite a liquid soup here because you will cook pasta in it, so thin with some water if needed. When the soup is boiling add some pasta to it. Cook until the pasta is soft (but not overcooked, again). Serve with a generous grind of black pepper and some good quality olive oil.

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14 Comments to “La pasta e fagioli”

  1. I love your descriptions of summer in the mountains. I’m a beach person because of where I live, but if I had the choice, I think I would be a mountain person. My favorite vacations have always been the ones where we headed far to the north.

    Your recipe looks lovely, too. I love pasta e fagioli and can’t wait to try your family version. Thanks for sending this to me at House Favorites!

  2. From my childhood holidays on the Adriatic Sea I got a deep dislike for sand: having sand on my skin irritates me. I love northern California beaches, but never have the urge to take off my shoes. I guess I am kind of funny that way. I really like your family recipe and I will definitely try it: I really like the idea of mixing fresh and dry beans. I actually have a batch of fresh borlotti that I picked and shelled myself. I am sorry you cannot find dry borlotti where you are. I am glad that’s not a thing I need to put into my luggage when I come back from Italy. Buona Pasqua!

    • I hope you had a great Easter as well Simona. I do envy you for the fresh beans! I find them dried at the Italian shop (which is incredibly well stocked, it is like walking in a shop in Sicily – bound to be this way, with so many Italians living here) but I go there about every other month.

  3. Wonderful dish and writing! I can imagine how wonderful it must be to live in Italy near the Alps, and so many diverse landscapes.

  4. I ♥ this post. Loved reading about your time in the mountains out of Milano. What wonderful memories….. and the pasta e fagioli ! What a classic, simple staple to include. Hope you are enjoying the holiday weekend! Cheers.

  5. Greece and Italy is in so many ways similar. Mountains or sea? I would definitely prefer the sea. I love the sea. I just can’t live far from it. Even here in Holland, I live near the sea, albeit the North Sea and not the glorious Mediterranean.

    I’ve never had pasta e fagioli but have read so much about it, seen so many recipes for it. When I decide to eventually make this dish, I will try your version.
    Magda

  6. I had to laugh out loud when I read the part of the TG1, so true. About how the elderly and chidlren must stay indoors during heatwaves and drink a lot of water. Love it. If you ask me (or read my last post) I would have to say mountains!

    • Yes, I went on holiday in South Tyrol for years (I’m actually having trouble commenting on Blogger today! I will try again tomorrow) and it is a beautiful place with incredibly friendly people and amazing food. Great value for money as well, I agree Definitely mountains at their best, although they are not the wildest ones.

  7. Hi Caffettiera, I’ve posted the April House Favorites wrap up. Thanks again!

  8. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing this recipe and your holiday memories. Italians have the right idea. I think the entire world should shut down, or at least sloooow down, in the month of August :-)

  9. Oh I love that dish :) first encountered in when working in the Valcamonica (not that far from Milano :) ).
    And always think of the bright side of the rain; it must have been fun together and all the food the Swiss missed out …

    • You’re right about the bright side of rain! Still, I’m off to Switzerland next weekend and hope to enjoy some of their famed sun, since in Germany we’ve been scorching all week.

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