OK, so I have taken a lot of heat (mostly from my mother) for daring to claim that I make a tastier meatball than my mother. So here’s a dish to make amends: my mother’s pasta e fagioli recipe. Truth be told, I have avoided making this meal for years for one simple reason: I can’t ever seem to get close to the taste that I grew up eating at my mother’s table. So, here it is, in all its simple glory:
1 lb dry great northern beans
8 cups water
1/2 lb ditalini
2 cups (more or less) simple tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
Parmesan cheese & red pepper flakes, to taste
Cook your great northern beans in about 8 cups of water. There’s two things my mother insists on: first, do not salt the water (it will make the beans tough); second, do not soak the beans overnight or “quick soak” them in boiling water. Just cook in the 8 cups of water until soft, which may take well upwards of two hours. When I asked her why she never soaks her beans, her answer is simply: “because we never did in Italy.” Once your beans are done, keep them simmering in the bean broth while you cook your pasta. I used a slow cooker on the beans, and it worked out well: started them in the morning and they were ready for the rest of the dish by the time I got home from work. You definitely want to cook the beans with quite bit of water, since that will be the base for the rest of the dish. It’s not exactly a soup (it falls into a category of dishes called a minestra), but you definitely want to have a brothy final product.
Salt your pasta water and cook your ditalini until it is just barely al dente–it will finish cooking in the final phases of the dish. Drain your pasta and add it to the beans and water. Continue to simmer.
Now add your tomato sauce to your liking–around two cups, more or less. Often, my mother would simply use up whatever leftover sauce she might have in the freezer. Getting the right amount of sauce in this dish is critical. Too much, and you loose the brothy flavor that makes this dish what it is. You want a pinkish/orange color, not red. My sister, I recently found out, literally adds tablespoons at a time until her eye registers just that perfect shade of pasta e fagioli that we grew up eating.
Let the dish simmer for another five minutes or so to allow all of the flavors meld. Plate in shallow, wide bowls and serve with grated Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.
This is a great winter dish, and when I served it up recently, Josh gave it the highest compliment I can think of. He declared it tasted almost as good as his Nana’s.