Pasta e Fagioli

When I was growing up, it was amazing how much you could learn if if you listened to the radio and if, like me, you had a mother who liked popular music.  For instance, by the time I was seven years old, I knew that Mona Lisa was a girl in a famous painting because Mom liked Nat King Cole’s song about a “famous work of art.”  When I was ten I learned how you said “God go with you” in Spanish because I listened to Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya Con Dios” at least a thousand times.  And then, when I was eleven, Dean Martin introduced a lot of us kids to “pizza pie” in a song my mother loved, “That’s Amore.”

I didn’t have a chance to taste pizza for another three or four years until Vin opened the first pizza shop on Hayward’s main street, but most of us kids knew the words to the song, especially the opening line: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore….”  Sixty years later I finally learned that the song also celebrated pasta e fagioli, an Italian dish of pasta and beans.  The line in the song uses the Neapolitan dialect for the sake of the rhyme.   “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta e fasule that’s amore.”  Fasule is what people call fagioli in Naples.

Whichever name you prefer, this combination of beans, pasta and vegetables makes a hearty and wonderful meal.  You can include meat if you want, but this peasant dish satisfies big appetites without it.  Vegetarian pasta e fagioli is an authentic, rustic Italian bean and pasta soup that’s extremely easy to make and can be on the table in less than an hour.  Be sure to try it sometime.

INGREDIENTS:

1 T olive oil

Half an onion

1 large carrot

1 celery stalk

1 zucchini, seven to nine inches long

2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp. dried basil

1 can (28 oz) of whole tomatoes

1 can (28 oz.) of white beans

About 2 cups baby spinach

1 cup vegetable stock

2 T parsley, chopped

1/2 tsp. salt

Black pepper to taste

About 8 oz. rotini, penne rigate or other short pasta

PROCEDURE:

You need a good knife, two large soup pots or a Dutch oven and a pot, a can opener and a wooden spoon to make Pasta e Fagioli.  You also need four bowls or plates to stage the vegetables.

Clean and chop the onion, carrot and celery into a quarter to half-inch dice and set these vegetables aside in a small bowl. Wash and chop the zucchini into a slightly larger dice and set it aside in a separate bowl.  You should have about one and a quarter cups of zucchini.  Peel and mince the garlic and set it aside in a small bowl.  Rinse the spinach and parsley.  Shred the spinach into half-inch by one inch pieces and chop the parsley medium fine and set them aside in a bowl.

 Heat the pot over medium-high heat and add the oil, onion, carrot and celery. Fry them for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and transparent. 

Add the garlic and sauté it for about a minute, then add the zucchini and basil. If the vegetables look dry, you can add a little more oil.  Cook the mixture for another couple of minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the tomatoes and their juice and use your spoon to break them into bite-sized pieces.

Add the beans and their liquid, spinach, vegetable stock, parsley, salt and a good grind of pepper (about a quarter of a teaspoon). Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer it for about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile in a separate pot, cook the the pasta until it is at the al dente stage. Drain and add the pasta to the soup. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately with some good bread and wine.

NOTES:  Since you add the pasta to the hot soup, it will continue cooking, so be careful not to overcook it.  If the instructions on the package say to cook for eight to ten minutes, for example, drain the pasta at eight minutes or even a few seconds before.  

It is important to prepare the vegetables before you begin cooking the soup, so you can add the vegetables at the proper times and not overcook them.  Done properly, the celery will have a little crunch, the carrots more, and the rest of the vegetables will retain their identity.

This soup loses some of its character when you freeze it, but it still tastes good.  If you want to enjoy it only at its peak of perfection, invite some friends over to share your pasta e fagioli with them when it’s done.  There will be enough for six diners.

Cleaning and chopping the vegetables takes half the time to make this soup, so if you prepare the veggies ahead, you can serve this soup in less than thirty minutes!

And if, like me, you don’t speak Italian, you might appreciate knowing how easy it is to say Pasta e Fagioli.  It’s Pasta eh Fa-JOE-lee.

Wild Grape Jelly

Many years ago, when we were living in Kentucky, I made my first batch of wild grape jelly from Fox grapes we picked along recently abandoned farm fields in Land Between the Lakes, the 170,000 acre national recreation area between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake created by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The area had been established only six years before we moved to Murray, Kentucky, and so the formerly developed areas in what was generally a forested peninsula were easy to access and enjoy.  

Our good friends, Dave and Toni, lived near Kentucky Lake, and Dave had a twenty-foot Jon boat which he used for fishing, and which we all enjoyed as a way to find primitive campsites along the lake.  One day when Dave and I were casting for bass along along a bay we called Panther Creek, we noticed a large Muscadine grapevine loaded with green fruit hanging over the water.

We kept close watch on that vine and researched recipes for making wine.  As the grapes began to turn color, Dave motored by the vine almost every day.  Muscadines are a prized grape in the south, and we wanted to harvest them before the competition.  Dave phoned one day to tell me that the grapes looked ripe, so I told him to expect me the next morning.

I was standing at the bow of the Jon boat as Dave eased us toward the vine.  It looked like there were enough grapes to make five gallons of wine.  As I was reaching for a branch to steady the boat, I saw something white in the vine near my arm.  In about a hundredth of a second I was ordering Dave, “Back, back, back!” It was a beautiful cottonmouth, probably four feet long, but it looked like a ten-footer as it wound itself around its cache of grapes.  We understood why no one picked any of those Muscadines that summer.

Poisonous snakes were common in western Kentucky, but I told myself that the hospital staff were surely well-trained to treat snakebite victims and followed the advice of local folks who told me to watch where I was putting my feet and my hands.  I was a little less confident a couple of years later after Dave was bitten by a pigmy rattlesnake while escorting a troop of Cub Scouts in Land Between the Lakes.  When he got to the emergency room after dropping off the scouts at a parent’s home, he was greeted by a nurse who was amazed that an arm could swell so fast and by a young doctor who came in reading a book titled How to Treat Snakebites.

Dave told me, “I was a bit nervous when I saw the book, but then I said to myself.  I teach English and tell my students you can learn a lot from books, so I relaxed.”  He spent several days in the hospital but recovered and spent the next forty years teaching college students.

I never saw any poisonous snakes when picking wild grapes, though friends assured me that deserted farms in Land Between the Lakes were favorite haunts of copperheads.  However, I admit that I did not dawdle and watched where I put my hands and feet while picking the raw material needed to make our jelly.  

If you like commercial Concord grape jelly, you will love Wild Grape Jelly.  Concord grapes are a cultivated variety of wild or Fox grapes, so the flavor is similar, but the jelly you get when you pick your own grapes and prepare the juice as detailed below will be ten times better than the puny stuff from the store.

Here is what to do.

INGREDIENTS:

4 cups prepared juice

1/2 cup water

7 cups sugar, measured into a separate bowl

1/2 tsp. butter

1 pouch CERTO Fruit Pectin

PROCEDURE:

Start by picking about six quarts of wild grape clusters. Wash and remove the grapes from the stems.  Put the grapes into a large saucepan or Dutch oven and add enough cold water to cover the grapes by about a quarter of an inch.

Bring the grapes to a boil and cook them for about ten minutes.  Use a potato masher to crush the grapes in the water and continue cooking for another five to ten minutes.

Rinse a clean dish towel.  Line a colander with the towel and set it over a large bowl.  Ladle the mashed grapes and juice into the colander to strain the juice.  You will probably need a second large bowl to hold all the juice.  When the grape mixture has given up its liquid, you have prepared grape juice.  

At this point you can either make your jelly or cool and refrigerate the juice for later use.

To make the jelly, start by washing and sterilizing nine one cup jelly jars by inverting them in a baking pan containing about an inch of water.  Bring the water to a boil, and keep a slow boil for four or five minutes.  Turn off the heat, let the water cool a few minutes, then drain the jars on a rack until you are ready to fill them.

Put the prepared juice and water into a four-quart pot or Dutch oven over low heat.

Measure the sugar into a mixing bowl and stir it into the juice over low heat. Raise the heat to medium and put a half teaspoon of butter into the juice.  Stir every minute or so while the juice is coming to a boil and very often after it is boiling.

Wild grape juice has a lot of fiber in it, which will rise to the top as the juice comes to a boil.  Skim the foam from the juice.  After the juice has boiled for three or four minutes, you should have skimmed most of the foam from the juice.  

Raise the heat and stir the fruit pectin into the juice.  Bring the juice to a full rolling boil (a boil which cannot be stirred down) and boil for one minute.  Remove the pan from the heat and skim any remaining foam.

Ladle the jelly into the prepared jars and seal them either with two thin layers of paraffin or with jar lids and rings.  Hand-tighten the rings and process the jars in a boiling water bath for five minutes.  The water in the canner should be about an inch over the tops of the jars.

Remove the jars from the canner and allow them to cool.

NOTES:  I have used the same dish towel for at least thirty years.  It has a beautiful assortment of stains from various kinds of fruits.  If you want to do the same, simply remove the pulp from the towel after you have finished straining the fruit, rinse the towel well, let it dry and wash it with your next load of household laundry.

Measuring the sugar into a bowl and noting the number of cups on a scrap of paper before stirring it into the juice is one of the most important instructions in this whole procedure.  Speaking from experience, I can assure you that if you are simply adding cups of sugar to the juice, the time will come when something will distract you.  The telephone or doorbell may ring, someone may ask a question, or your favorite toddler may trip and fall.  When you return to making jelly, you will suddenly realize that you can’t be sure whether you had added five or six cups of sugar before the interruption.  Believe me when I say that this creates a nasty feeling in your stomach.

Muscadines make wonderful jelly too, but I never picked any.   Whenever I got close to a vine, I kept seeing that white mouth.