I learned a new word this winter while skimming a used book store in search of authentic Italian- battuto, which literally translates into the strike or beating referring to the chopping of the aromatic base of a soup, stew, or sauce containing equal parts onion, celery, and carrot. In battuto, there is also a fresh chopped herb such as flat leaf parsley, garlic, and a diced piece of fatty pork or meat and sometimes fennel. Italian battuto is cousin to the similar French base, mire-poix or Cajun holy trinity. Its simplicity adds so much depth without using much added salt or oils. I was reminded of a recipe as foreign as it is familiar to me, Pasta e fagioli…which is common in most Italian homemade cooking but each family has their own recipe supposedly better than the others. Growing up, my family pronounced it as close to tongue and cheek American Italian as ‘pasta fahz-jool’…Yes, while Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Mambo Italiano’ and a sheet of fluffy, parmessan pizza would force your appetite to a family style 5:00 Sunday dinner.
This is the Italian I was fed growing up between my Dad and Grandmother’s cooking. I faintly remember much of the sensation of my Dad’s cooking but I’m usually reminded of his curiosity around a stove especially when it utilized his toys in the kitchen. We had an electric pasta machine as heavy as a car battery that was as seasonal as his appetite to lay out the 8 foot screens across the kitchen table with rows of soft floured nests of every type of noodle that he had an accesory for: spaghetti, fettucine, linguine, lasagna, ziti, rigatoni, even ravioli. This was more than just a past time for him, it was a favorable hobby that is a glossy memory of him for the rest of my family.
Inherently, there is a thick, saucy, bloodline of Italian descent running through half of my body which is to say it derives along the same line as an Uncle Nunzio, a Nonna Carmela, and a cousin Tony (I, II, and III) but because my name ends in a vowel, doesn’t mean the ability to make smooth moves around a kitchen is hereditary. In my adult life, I’ve tried to replicate only a handful of Italian recipes, most of which consisted of dry dollar box noodles. If I had to choose my first or last meal, it would not be a plate of pasta. I don’t eat red meat or chicken. And I’m not totally confident in my taste of wines. I feel as American-Italian as an Olive Garden. But, I am working at it.
Lately though, I’ve been re-introduced to a more seductive and savory Italian cucina. Marcella Hazan was introduced to me on a recommended reading list for home cooks. For someone who didn’t cook much before her marriage to an Italian-born New York Sephardic Jewish man, her lineage of Italian cooks caught up with her memory in the kitchen once she moved to the states and nobody else was cooking with consistent Italian “-umpf”. Starting with Italian cookbooks, she moved on to relying on her own recipes while her husband translated into English text. The cross-cultural exchange is a beautiful history of foods.
I adapted her Pasta e fagioli recipe from her book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, to a vegetarian friendly soup but if I did flex my stomach for meat- I encourage you to use the pork that will emit some pretty savory flavor that is hard to imitate. I did use chicken stock in this recipe and a little extra of the battuto mix to my taste but substituting vegetable broth is another option.
Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)
Yields 4-6 hearty servings
- 1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1/4 Cup chopped Onion
- 2 tablespoons Fresh Thyme (3-4 whole twigs)
- 1/4 Cup chopped Carrot
- 1/4 Cup chopped Celery
- 3-4 Pork ribs or ham bone or 5-6 slices of diced uncooked bacon
- 2/3 Cup canned imported Italian Tomatoes, peeled and cut with their canned juices (6 Best Brands for Canned Tomatoes)
- 4 Cups cooked Dark Red Kidney beans, if canned, be sure to wash and strain (Canellini, Northern, and Cranberry beans also work)
- 3-4 Cups plus more Beef/Chicken/Vegetable broth (1 cup of canned broth diluted with 2 cups water)
- Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper to taste
- 3/4 lb. dried tubular pasta (I used elbow macaroni but whichever noodle you choose make sure it has some type of crevace to adhere to the sauce)
- 1 tablespoon Unsalted Butter
- 2 tablespoons Fresh Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese plus more to garnish
- 1/2 Bunch of Fresh Flat Leaf Parsley, chopped
- Add olive oil, onion and thyme in soup pot and turn on heat to medium. Cook the onion, stirring, until it sweats and is pale gold in color. Add the carrot and celery, stir once or twice to coat them well and they begin to soften, then add the pork. Cook for 10 minutes, turning meat and vegetables from time to time. Add the cut up tomatoes and their juice, adjust the heat so that the juices simmer very gently, and cook for 20 minutes stirring occasionally.
- Add the drained cooked or canned beans, stirring them thoroughly to coat them well. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the broth, cover the pot, and bring the broth to a gentle boil.
- Scoop and mash (use the back of a wooden spoon or potato masher) about 1/2 cup of the cooked beans and return to the pot. Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste and stir
- Check the soup for density: It should be liquid enough to cook the pasta in. If necessary, add more broth or, if you are using canned broth, more water. When the soup comes to a steady, moderate boil, add the pasta. Stop cooking when the pasta is tender or al dente. Before turning off the heat, swirl in the butter, grated cheese, and half of your fresh parsley.
- Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with fresh parmigiano and parsley and serve (with some fresh crusty artisan bread).
Not pictured is the trumpet and tapping I had from Louis Prima’s band
Buona fortuna e mangiare!…er…right??