I clicked on Priya Parker’s insightful Ted Talk yesterday morning on “turning get-togethers into transformative gatherings” because I was sure it was about food. Spoiler: it isn’t. And although in these charged and divisive times it is worth way more than 10 minutes, I know her remarkable work would be enhanced if she came to my classes to learn how to keep people around the table. First ingredient: lovingly prepared, tasty food.
A universal language that builds bridges between people: that is the definition of food. My most mindful exchanges, my significant a-ha moments, my epic fights and tearful reunions all happened around the table. Food beckons and, if it’s good, people stay and engage.
My go-to for what Parker calls “transformative gatherings” are slow-cooked, one-pot meals that mutter on the stove, delivering the fragrance that defines a home. Pasta e fagioli is exactly that, a familiar dish whose comforting flavors never tire. It is exceedingly easy to put together and allows every cook to give it their spin.
Below is my version, but you should feel free to swap an herb for another, use whatever beans you prefer or are in your pantry, or even doctor with a little tomato paste. Pancetta is easy to find and always a great flavor-building block, but I have also used prosciutto.
In my childhood kitchen, cotiche (scrubbed and blanched prosciutto skins) were a staple. My husband, informed by a North Carolinian upbringing, flavors his version with a ham hock that leaves bits of smokiness. Or you can forego the meat, add more onions and carrots, toss in a well-scrubbed parmigiano rind and make it vegetarian. In other words, absorb the technique and make this dish uniquely your own.
As always, feel free to post mindful comments and/or email me with questions.
Pasta e fagioli
serves 6 to 8 people (Print out here.)
2 cups uncooked cannellini, soaked overnight
1 small yellow onion
1 celery rib
¼” thick pancetta slice
1 small rosemary sprig
2 tablespoons olive oil + some for finishing
4 sage leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup uncooked pasta (small format like tubetti is perfect)
Grated parmigiano or pecorino for serving
Finely chop the onion, carrot and celery together. Cube the pancetta and turn into a paste in the food processor. Strip the rosemary sprig and mince the needles finely.
Note: If you do not have a food processor you can mince the pancetta using the trick of placing it in the freezer until it is quite hard but not completely frozen. In this state, it will be very easy to mince.
Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a wide shallow sauce pot, ideally one attractive enough to be carried to the table as a serving vessel. Add the minced aromatic vegetables, pancetta, rosemary and sage leaves. Season with a pinch of salt and sauté gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until the pancetta is translucent and much of its fat has melted and the vegetables have softened and are beginning to turn blond.
Drain the beans and stir them in. Move around the pot for two to three minutes to coat them. Add three times the volume of the beans in hot water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat until there are gentle but visible bubbles, season with two teaspoons of salt, partially cover and cook until the beans are quite tender and almost melt in your mouth, 40 to 50 minutes.
Note: The cooking time depends on the kind of beans you are using and their age. Refer to the package or to your experience to gauge, keeping in mind that the older the beans the longer they need.
For a creamier mouth feel, spoon about 1/2 cup of beans into a bowl and puree them with a handheld blender, then stir back into the pot. Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Keep in mind that pasta e fagioli is a soup, so the beans should be fairly runny. If it seems too thick, you can use some hot water to dilute it.
In a separate pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta quite al dente, three to four minutes less than suggested on the package. Drain and combine with the beans, heat for about two minutes, stir and finish with a thread of olive oil. Bring to the table while still steaming and offer grated cheese on the side.
As any soup, this freezes well, but I recommend freezing the bean part by itself and adding freshly cooked pasta only when the time to eat it comes.