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.

Ham and Great Northern Bean Soup

Americans waste lots of good food today, between thirty and forty percent of our food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Some of that waste occurs during harvesting and processing food, but the USDA estimates that thirty-one percent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels.

We, of course, are the consumers, and we all waste food. When surveyed, most Americans feel that they waste less food than their friends and neighbors. In other words, like the parents in the Prairie Home Companion city of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” we all believe than we are below average in wasting food. As a logical statement, this must be a self-evident falsehood.

Since I think that we waste less food than most people, I offer a little quiz to determine whether you actually do waste less food than Jerri and I.

Question 1: Do you eat bananas after they have turned brown?
Question 2: Do you cut the “bad spot” off the apple you forgot about and eat it? Question 3: Do you save three tablespoons of mashed potatoes for lunch?
Question 4: Do you save the tablespoon of leftover gravy to put on the potatoes?
Question 5: Do you boil the turkey carcass, pick off the meat and save the broth?
Question 6: Do you save ham bones to make soup?

If you can answer yes to all six, you are doing very well. But if you want to compete with Jerri, you have to answer yes to this question also.

Question 7: Do you clean out the shortening can with a spatula to save the last bit of grease to season the cast iron frying pans?

If your answer is a resounding YES! you are a leading warrior in the battle against food waste.

And if you saved that ham bone from your Easter dinner, you have a good start on a great soup.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. Great Northern Beans
Water
1 ham bone
Ham skin (if available)
1 or 2 cups chopped ham
1 or 2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 1/2 cups chopped carrots
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. white pepper
Salt and black pepper if necessary

PROCEDURE:

Rinse the beans the night before you make the soup, discarding any debris. When I was a kid, it was not uncommon to find a tiny stone or two in the dry beans. I haven’t found one in the last three or four years, but I always look. Put the beans into a large bowl and cover them with cold water.

Next morning, put the beans into a five-quart saucepan or Dutch oven and cover them with water. Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the beans for about forty-five minutes until they begin to get tender. Drain the beans and set them aside. Reserve the bean water.

Put the ham bone into the Dutch oven or a soup pot. Cover the ham bone with cold water and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the bone for at least an hour to make the broth.

While the ham bone is simmering, clean and chop the vegetables. I like to chop the carrots into quarter-inch rounds, the celery into half-inch pieces and the onion into a quarter-inch dice. Mince the garlic and chop the ham. The amount of ham you need depends on how much meat was on the ham bone. I chop it into a half to three-quarter-inch dice. Set the meat and vegetables aside in a bowl.

After simmering for an hour or so, the meat should be falling off the bone and most of the flavor from the bone and skin (if used) will be in the broth. Remove the ham bone and skin from the broth and set them aside to cool.

Add the chopped ham, chicken bouillon cube, vegetables, bay leaf, thyme, cloves and white pepper to the pot. If necessary add enough of the bean water to cover the vegetables by a half inch or so. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Remove the meat from the ham bone and add it to the soup. Mash a half cup of beans and stir them into the soup, then add the rest of the beans plus a little more bean water and continue simmering the soup until the beans are tender.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper if necessary.

Serve with a salad and good bread.

NOTES: If the ham bone and meat are from a very salty ham, you might want to use only one bouillon cube. Add a teaspoonful of instant bouillon if the the soup needs more salt when you first taste it. Stir and simmer the soup for a minute and taste it again before making the final adjustment.

Many people are becoming more interested in reducing food waste. The USDA has a good page about the Food Waste Challenge which sponsors programs to help businesses and organizations achieve a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has an excellent site on the Sustainable Management of Food.

One good example of a program designed to reduce food waste was started several years ago at Pine City, Minnesota. Named after a western Wisconsin lady known for her Christian generosity, Ruby’s Pantry now serves dozens of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin from distribution warehouses in southeastern Minnesota and central Wisconsin.

Trucks deliver food and other items to communities where volunteers work at a “Pop Up Pantry” once a month. Several years ago, a friend of ours active in First Lutheran Church inspired her church to sponsor a Ruby’s Pop-Up Pantry every third Thursday in New Richmond.

Everyone is invited to attend. Ruby’s Pantry is devoted to sharing food and other necessities to anyone who can use them. People of all income levels and diet preferences are welcome. The only request is that you not waste the items you receive. If there is something that you can not use, give it to a neighbor or a local food shelf.

That’s what Jerri and I do, and we think that it is a wonderful program.