An alternative and popular technique for cooking pasta is to cook it as if it were a risotto, adding water a little at a time. It does require slightly more attention than the normal method, and certainly cannot be applied to all sauces, but it is more convenient for an easy weekday dinner, since it really is a one pot meal. It is all the more surprising that I never used it while I was living at home with my parents, and only started when my partner told me of his favourite way of making pasta with chickpeas.
The technique works particularly well for two categories of sauces: seafood sauces, where the starch in pasta actually binds an otherwise too thin sauce, and legume-based pasta, and I make all of them like this now . It is a bit like making a pasta e fagioli, but with less water so you can eat the end result with a fork. It is particularly forgiving, since you don’t have to stir that much, provided the food does not stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
All sorts of flavourings and herbs work as tasty additions. I make this pasta for dinner every time I cook some legumes. I always use my pressure cooker – I don’t actually plan ahead, I simply cook two portions of legumes twice a week, since they keep a few days in the fridge and more in the freezer. So one night I soak them, the day after I cook them, then I store them. I may use some for some recipe I have in mind or for a quick salad or hummus. Then when I don’t know what to make for dinner or lunch, or I don’t have time, I make pasta with what is left. I usually break a bit of the legumes, using an immersion blender or a fork, keeping them in their cooking liquid; I add a bit of garlic or onion, some chopped herbs (very good use for parsley stalks), and possibly some chopped vegetables if I want to make it go further (broccoli is a great candidate). I let it cook for a bit, until I have an aromatic soup, not very thin; then I add the pasta, making sure I top it up with hot water when I need, and I mix it now and again. A swirl of olive oil, and I tuck in.
This recipe is my favourite variation. The beans and mussels pairing is quite popular throughout Southern Italy, and once tried it is unforgettable. It is one of those pairings that just work. My partner swears the original version is from Calabria, of course, but I’ve seen variations of it in Naples and Puglia, and I’m sure there are dozens I’ve missed. All of them are different, by the amount of liquid, from a pasta asciutta to a soup, by the type of beans, from the widespread borlotti to cannellini to black eye beans, by the amount of tomato sauce and the type of pasta used. They all work, needless to say. The version I prefer tastes incredibly elegant for such a ‘peasant’ dish. As I already told you, I find great mussels here (these actually came from the market and were even better). I used some pasta from Giuseppe Cocco, very pricey and very good. Cannellini are maybe the only pulse that I don’t cook with a pressure cooker normally. They don’t take longer than an hour once they are soaked, they produce a lot of foam (the biggest pressure cooker enemy), and they overcook easily.
Needless to say, this pasta would be perfect for some home-made short pasta shape like orecchiette. But this version is ready in twenty minutes (actually a bit more if you are using a posh pasta like Cocco – it takes ages to cook, and it is so totally worth the wait). This recipe goes to Presto Pasta Night #248, the weekly event created by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast and hosted this week by Emma at Souperior (isn’t it a brilliant name?!).
Pasta with cannellini and mussels
Ingredients (serves 2)
100 gr dried cannellini beans, soaked and cooked until tender but not mushy – keep cooking water (or just use 1 can cannellini)
180 gr short pasta – I used penne from Giuseppe Cocco
1 small bunch of parsley
4-5 dried basil leaves, or use fresh
2 garlic cloves
2-3 tomatoes, optional
pinch of chilli flakes
500 gr mussels
best quality olive oil
Chop the parsley stalks and some of the leaves, dice the tomato and crush one of the garlic cloves. Add parsley, garlic, tomatoes and basil leaves (if using dried) to the cannellini in their cooking broth, topping up with water if needed (there should be about 1 cm liquid above the level of the cannellini). Bring to the boil and let cook for about five minutes. Meanwhile clean the mussels, making sure all the hard bits are removed from the shells. Add the pasta to the boiling cannellini broth.
In a wide pan heat a splash of olive oil, add the other clove of garlic and chilli flakes to taste. Add the mussels, cover and let cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mussels are open. Turn off the heat, discard any unopened mussel and set aside. Stir the pasta and check if it needs more liquid. When it does, add in all the juice from the mussels. Keep mixing occasionally and topping up if needed until the pasta is ready, but still al dente. Add the mussels, give everything a final stir, and serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsely, fresh basil if using, and a drizzle of olive oil.