Viva Firenze – Fagioli e Pasta (Beans with Pasta)
On my recent trip to Florence, we had the good luck of arriving just in time for lunch. Passing through the maze of streets and laneways, I could barely contain my excitement at trying the food of this wonderful city firsthand. We arrived at the door and window of a tiny place that was bursting with people inside. While waiting, I passed an eye over the door, which was festooned with articles and stickers lauding the experience within. We were ushered to our table, packed in so tight we had to keep apologising for nudging our chairs into other diners. The menu was short, with big pots bubbling away with what was in season and without a doubt, what the cooks felt like making that day. I selected Fagioli e Pasta, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What appeared was something not quite a soup, not quite a stew, but something sitting happily in the middle. A sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan, a glass of good red wine, and my first foray into Italian food from its homeland was done (and it was most definitely delicious). As I slurped and munched away, behind the register the waiters broke out into song, singing the Italian equivalent of “Happy Birthday” – a tune I managed to scrounge up recognition for from my childhood. The song spread out, and soon the whole restaurant was singing. If this was Italy – good food, good wine and a country that transformed into a musical at the drop of hat, then I was in for a real treat indeed.
I quite like the fact that this dish is called Fagioli e Pasta, and not Pasta e Fagioli, because the hero of this story is most definitely the beans – the pasta is added to the title quite like an afterthought. This is a hearty, warm and comforting meal, perfect for those days where it’s so cold, your nose is turning pink. That being said, I did have mine on a warm Summer’s afternoon, and if that’s the way the Italian’s have it, well it’s fine by me.
What is fantastic about this recipe, is that it is entirely a no-chop meal. You can throw everything in a pan and practically forget about it, leaving you with a pot full of deliciousness, with very minimal effort. The long, slow cooking ensures everything is melt in your mouth falling apart, and as someone that needs a full pack of tissues when the neighbour is cutting onions (thanks, over-sensitive tear ducts), throwing in a whole onion is very satisfying.
Another bonus is it’s a very economical meal – beans may have been the poor man’s meat, but personally, I love them and their robust nature. A ham hock was added for extra flavour, and has the bonus of being an extremely cheap cut of meat – one from an organic butcher should set you back only about $5, and as in all cases, cooking something on the bone adds a huge bang of flavour to a dish. Do feel free to omit though to keep the dish vegetarian if you like.
I hope you take as much satisfaction as I did in not only the cooking process of this meal, but also the result. Serve a big bowl with extra parmesan, and a little bit of vinegar on the table for those who are so inclined.
Fagioli e Pasta
300g cannelini beans, soaked overnight
three garlic cloves
one ham (or pork) hock
one tomato, halved
two brushed potatoes, halved
one stalk celery, halved
one carrot, halved
a handful of thyme
one bay leaf
three litres water
one tablespoon of tomato paste
200g small, tube-shaped pasta (we used Canneroni)
White wine vinegar
salt and pepper
Put your beans in a bowl or pot, with enough water to cover, pop on a lid and leave to soak overnight, or for at least six hours.
In a large pot, add a good glug of olive oil and your beans. Throw in three whole (but peeled) garlic cloves. Make a little space in the centre of the pot to nestle in your ham hock, so it’s nice and snug.
Don’t worry about peeling the vegetables – just make sure they’re washed well. Halve and add one whole tomato, two brushed potatoes, one large stalk of celery, one long chilli, one whole onion and one carrot.
Make a bouquet garni with a bay leaf and a few sprigs of thyme. Tie with kitchen string, or just use one of the sprigs of thyme to tie together. Throw this in the pot, add three litres of water and your tomato paste. Crack some black pepper over the top, but as usual with beans, do not add salt until the end of the cooking process, otherwise they will harden.
Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer and pop the lid on for two and a half hours, stirring occasionally so the bottom doesn’t stick, until everything is lovely and soft and some of the beans have burst. Turn the heat off, and with a slotted spoon remove your herbs and discard. Remove your vegetables and ham hock, as well as half the beans. Leave to cool slightly, and pull the meat off the bone (it should come very easily, and a sneaky bite here is okay).
Either using a stick blender or a regular blender, puree the vegetables, meat and beans with a ladle of the cooking liquid until you have a smooth mixture roughly the colour of a cafe latte.
Add this back to the pot with the remainder of the beans. At this point, it’s okay for it to be a little watery. Bring back to a boil, and add the pasta, cooking for 8-10 minutes. The starch in the pasta should make it all come together into the characteristically thick stew/soup consistency. Turn off the heat, add a splosh of white wine vinegar, a handful of finely grated parmesan, taste and season with good quality sea salt as preferred.
Serve with nice crusty bread, some good red wine, and extra parmesan. Italians singing Happy Birthday optional.