Disclaimer: This is not my picture. It is far too profession to ever be mine. My camera decided to kidnap my photos and hold them for ransom, in other words I can't get the pics to download from my camera to my laptop so I am "borrowing" this one until I can send in Ross Perot and his team of mercenaries to rescue my little digital hostages. This photo is courtesy of Cuisine at home, the same place I "borrowed" the recipe.
Beam me up Tony! Few things transport me home more quicker than a bowl of pasta fazool or the crooning of “I Left my Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett. And in North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco, perhaps only the Pope himself would receive a warmer welcome than Mr. Bennett. When people hear North Beach they naturally think Italian but it is actually only one aspect of a very interesting, diverse district of the City. It runs from downtown, just north of the Transamerica Pyramid, through the strip clubs of Broadway, by the Gold Coast, through Washington Square, brushing the foot of Coit Tower, stopping just a few blocks short of Fisherman’s Wharf, swinging by Chinatown, and looping around the north slope of Nob Hill.
All of these influences have colored North Beach in their own unique way from the Italians, to the Chinese, to the bankers, to those of ill repute. In the 50s and 60s, North Beach was home to the Beat Generation or Beatniks as they were known. On the Road author Jack Kerouac and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (proprietor of the famous City Lights Bookstore), frequented Vesuvio Café, a favorite of the literary greats much like Lapin Agile on Montmartre was to Picasso and his fellow artists.
When trying to decide what to make for the January 23rd Is My Blog Burning bean theme, I immediately thought of cassoulet, being in France and all. Then all of a sudden that cute little lightbulb appeared over my head…. “DUH! You’re Italian! Make grandma’s pasta fazool” …if for no other reason than she made this at least three times a week for the better part of her 84 years! Having grown up knowing this dish only as pasta fazool (fa-ZOOL), it was just a few years ago that I realized pasta fazool was actually pasta e fagioli (ee fa-gee-OH-lee) or in English, pasta and beans! “Fazool” as it turns out is my grandmother’s southern Italian dialect pronunciation of the word fagioli.
When consulting with my grandmother on this recipe, she said she always made it less as a soup (the traditional way) and more like a cassoulet, though an Italian cook would never allude to doing anything remotely French, so I usually add a bit more pasta and “fazool” than the recipe requests. I paired this with a 2002 Miner Rosato rosé wine, a light wine that if served as an appetizer would transition nicely to a meat dish and a more robust red such as a pinot noir. Bob Miner was also the co-founder of Oracle Corp, where I first landed in the hi-tech world. So in honor of my little Italian grandmother from Esperia, just outside of Rome, and my hi-tech alma mater in Silicon Valley, mangia bene e salut!
Pasta e Fagioli
I know I’ve pontificated endlessly about simplicity and ease (ie: shortcuts) while cooking but this is one dish that I do the old fashioned way. It’s still fun, it just takes a bit longer. Canned beans just don’t work for me in this dish since I was practically weaned on it. Everything – the flavor, texture, and nutritional content – is remarkably different when using dry beans so take the time to plan ahead. You can cook the beans anywhere from 1 to 3 days before making this dish. It’s only a few more steps that makes a world of difference – kind of like flying in first class and then flying coach – a wonderful experience or 12 hours of hell. You can tell where I sat my last few flights home… sorry, back to the beans.
This dish can be an appetizer/starter or served with a green salad and some country bread as an entire meal. Patisserie Pinaud on rue Monge (next to Place Monge) makes a wonderfully chewy country pain aux graines (bread with grains) that just screams for this dish.
Cooking dried beans: In cooking school we learned this method with lentils however it’s the same concept. First pick through the beans (or lentils) very carefully to remove any small pebbles, stones or dirt chunks. Then soak them completely covered in cold water in the fridge for 4-12 hours. Drain and rinse a few times and cook the beans in cold water for 1–1½ hours until done. Then prepare the meal as directed. So that’s the hard part and if you do that a day ahead it’s a piece of cake, not literally of course but you know what I mean. If you are thinking "sister, there is no freakin' way I am dealing with dried beans", then use canned cannellini beans.
This looks like a lot of ingredients but if you break it up by step like I did below, it’s much less overwhelming. I’ve seen many variations on this recipe including ingredients like ground meat, carrots, red and white kidney beans, red peppers, V-8 juice (yuk!) and ham. This recipe below is from one of my favorite cooking magazines, Cuisine at home and it is as close to the traditional recipe from the hills outside of Rome as you can get. Simple, without a lot of crazy stuff. I thought it best to go with a tried and true source… however I did tweak it a bit to incorporate my grandmother’s suggestions of a little of this and a dash or so of that…
1 pound (450 grams) medium-sized thick-skinned dried beans (makes 6 cups)
-use Great Northern beans for this recipe if you can find them
1 cup pasta, dried (small shells suggested)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup yellow onion, diced
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 large cloves garlic, minced
a few long sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tsp anchovies, finely chopped to a purée (*please don’t buy that
nasty stuff in the tube! it has a half life longer than plutonium)
4 cups (1 liter) chicken broth
2 cups (½ liter) reserved pasta water
2 medium tomatoes, seeded, diced (optional)
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice (about ½ a lemon)
salt & pepper to taste
1 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
1. Sort beans to remove pebbles or dirt. Rinse well. Soak in a large pot with cold water to cover by a few inches. Cover and chill 4 – 12 hours.
2. Drain and rinse soaked beans. Place beans in pot, add 6 cups cold water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1–1½ hours, partially covered. Add more water during cooking if needed. Test a few beans for tenderness after 1 hour. Drain and chill (up to 3 days).
3. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta reserving 2 cups water for the soup; set aside.
4. Sauté onion, black pepper, and pepper flakes in oil in a large pot over medium-high heat unitl onions are soft but don't let them burn.
5. Stir in garlic, rosemary, and anchovy mash. Cook for 1 minute.
6. Add beans, broth, tomatoes (if you decided to use them), and reserved pasta water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 – 25 minutes.
7. Stir in lemon juice, pasta, and season to taste.
8. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and parsley.