Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Authentic Pasta E Fagioli

Before I get to this recipe, a little bit about my experiences with Italian foods. I grew up in a half Italian, half Irish household. My mom is Italian, and her specialty is spaghetti and meatballs. Every Sunday, we would have a fresh pot of gravy (yes, gravy not sauce) cooking in the kitchen. The smell of fresh food cooking like that was so great. My mom never really ventured beyond that and chicken parm, as far as Italian cooking went, thanks to a picky husband and son. (Side note: Interestingly enough, when we went to Italy on our honeymoon, we found out that chicken parm isn't really Italian - I don't think we saw it on one menu during our entire stay.)

Now that I am on my own, and have a husband who will eat almost anything, I find myself diving a little deeper into Italian cooking. A few years ago, I dug up The Olive Garden's version of Pasta E Fagioli and thought it was excellent. Then we started going to more authentic Italian restaurants and realized that what the Olive Garden makes (much like all of their dishes), is not what true Pasta E Fagioli is supposed to look or taste like.

Determined to master the more traditional soup recipe, I set out looking for a new recipe this weekend. My first stop was Giada's page on Food network's website. I didn't have to look very long to find a recipe that I thought would resemble what you get in a restaurant.

Pasta E Fagioli
Giada De Laurentiis of Food Network

4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup chopped onion
3 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
5 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 (14.5-ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3/4 cup elbow macaroni
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Wrap the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and secure closed with kitchen twine.(I didn't have a cheesecloth to secure the spices in, so I just threw them in the pan and fished them out with a slotted spoon before serving.) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, pancetta, and garlic and saute until the onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, beans, and sachet of herbs. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Discard the sachet. Puree 1 cup of the bean mixture in a blender until smooth*. Before putting the puree back into the soup, add the macaroni and boil with the lid on until it is tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Return the puree to the remaining soup in the saucepan and stir well. Season the soup with ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with some Parmesan and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil just before serving.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Recipe Notes
This soup was fantastic. A lot of the reviews said that it was too salty, but I didn't think that it was. As long as you use the low sodium chicken broth, I don't think you'll have a problem with the salt. The only thing I may add the next time I make this is a can of diced tomatoes or some roasted red peppers. I think the flavor would balance out nicely with beans.

My only other complaint is the reheatability of the soup. The next night the soup was a lot more congealed than I thought it would be. If you are going to use this as leftovers, I would make sure that you have some extra broth on hand to add to it before reheating it.

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