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).