Recipe: Pasta e fagioli all’isolana

Here is the recipe I mentioned a few days ago. It’s a fairly quick and hearty one-pot meal that I’ve adapted from a classic recipe I found in the October 1989 issue of La Cucina Italiana. It’s a bit unusual in that the pasta is cooked in the pot along with the sauce, which if I hadn’t read it in an Italian magazine I would have dismissed as an almost heretical technique. But hey, perché no?

The recipe calls for cannellini beans, which are essentially (but not exactly) white kidney beans. I’m a big fan of this glorious bean, and I recommend using the real thing if you can find them. By that I mean beans imported from Italy. (For more information on that topic, go here.)

The original recipe used dried beans, and yielded six servings. My version uses canned beans and yields two servings. You can easily adapt this recipe for four, six, or eight by multiplying accordingly. Note, however, that my quantities are all approximate, due to the conversion, the use of canned beans, plus the fact that a bit more or a bit less of any ingredient won’t ruin the dish; it will just make it a bit different.

I’ve only made this once so far (a few days ago), and my adapted recipe is taken from my memory of what I did then. (I didn’t take notes.) Over time I will return to this recipe and will modify it if I find the quantities aren’t quite right. The most iffy thing is the amount of water to use; you want enough for it to cook, and be absorbed by, the pasta, but not so much that you’ll end up with a soup. The main thing is to keep an eye on it for the last ten minutes or so and to add small quantities of water if it seems like it’s getting too dry.

pasta and cannellini beans, 2011

Pasta e fagioli all’isolana

Ingredients

  • About 50 g (almost 2 oz) pancetta, cut into smallish pieces
  • A bit of olive oil
  • 1 stalk of celery, finely diced
  • 1 generous pinch of chili pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • About half of an 800 ml (28 oz) can of whole Italian tomatoes
  • 8-10 basil leaves, cut into fine ribbons
  • 400 ml (14 oz) can of cannellini beans (or white kidney beans), drained and rinsed.
  • About 60 g pasta of your choice (I recommend some kind of tubes, such as penne, cannelloni, or interneti. Or you could follow the original recipe and use a mix of styles)
  • About 30 g (1 oz) grated pamesano reggiano cheese
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • About 750 ml (3 cups) of water

Method

  1. Gently brown the pancetta in about a tablespoon of olive oil.
  2. When the pancetta is starting to get crispy, add the celery and the pepper flakes and cook for another few minutes.
  3. Turn up the heat a bit and add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute (be careful not to burn the garlic).
  4. Add the tomatoes. Stir, and use the spoon to break them up. Add a pinch of salt (to taste, but remember that the pancetta is already adding salt). Add about 500 ml (2 cups) of water and the basil, and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the beans. Return to a light boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes. (The mixture will seem way too watery at this point, but don’t worry; that will change when you add the pasta.)
  7. Return to a boil and stir in the pasta. Keep uncovered and at a low boil, stirring regularly until the pasta is cooked al-dente. It will probably take a bit longer than if you were boiling it in plain water. If the sauce thickens up too much before the pasta is cooked, add more water, a few spoonfuls at a time.
  8. When the pasta is cooked and the sauce is very slightly wetter than you want, remove the pot from the heat. Stir in half of the grated parmesan cheese. (This will add yumminess and a bit of thickening.) Check the seasoning and add a bit of salt if necessary.

Serve topped with a bit more grated parmesan cheese and some freshly ground black pepper. Traditionally, this dish is served either hot or at room temperature, depending on the season (i.e., hot in the cold months).

La (Mia) Cvcina Italiana

A rather unusual gift arrived chez moi last weekend; a stack of La Cucina Italiana food magazines from the late 1980s and 1990s, 21 copies in all. They weigh a ton, as they’re printed on heavy stock in that old fashioned way, and they’re full of articles, ads, color photographs, and most importantly, recipes. There’s only one problem; it’s all written in Italian.

La Cucina Italiana

Fortunately, I can decipher the recipes fairly easily with a bit of patience, frequent trips to Google’s translation page, and a few leaps of faith. So far I’ve only tried one (more on that later).

As far as I know, La Cucina Italiana was at the time (and may still be) the premiere food publication in Italy. It is currently enjoying a ride on the international foodie wave, and has web sites in several different languages, including English. However, these older issues seem quite middlebrow and unfancy, aimed apparently at homemakers who were not interested in venturing beyond the conventional Italian gustatory canon. (And it should be said that I am a big fan of that canon.)

What I find most surprising is how unappealing some of the food is. Although the magazines are only 10 to 20 years old, a good many of the photographs bring to mind old Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1960s and you can imagine the plates being held by Betty Draper-like house moms in their ranch style kitchens in Westchester county.

But then, classic Italian cooking has always been about simplicity, and in these days of endless food porn a simple plate of meatballs draped with a beige cream sauce is unappealing only because it was photographed on a floral patterned plate and without fancy lighting or bokeh overload.

I don’t know how much I’ll actually learn from these magazines, or how much time I’ll spend with them. For now they’re fun to flip through and to look at the ads for  unexpected things like corn oils and margarines. I expect I’ll try a few recipes, such as the cannellini beans and pasta that I’ve already deciphered and modified. (An odd choice for a hot day, but I love cannellini beans and I had all the ingredients on hand.) In that case, the main differences between the original version and mine are:

  • The original recipe takes three hours. Mine took 40 minutes because I used canned beans instead of dried.
  • The original served six; mine served two.
  • The original recipe called for a mix of pasta types while I used only one.
  • The original’s bean-to-pasta ratio emphasized the beans, while mine had a higher ratio of pasta. Next time I’ll try to make it more like the original. (After all, I see this as more of a bean recipe than a pasta recipe.)
  • My sauce was thicker than the original’s but that was just luck as I was guessing at the amount of water to use. Making it wetter (which is not unappealing) would have been just a matter of adding a couple of tablespoons of water at the end.

It’s worth making again, so I will transcribe the recipe soon and present it here. (Update: recipe posted.)

Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photgraphed by La Cucina Italiana in 1989 (with no bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 1987

Below: Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photographed by blork in 2011 (with just a touch of bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 2011

Recipe coming soon.