Pasta e Fagioli translates as Pasta and Beans but this dish is so much more than that. It’s a feast! This classic Italian dish is perfect when there is a bite to the air, and the dry leaves are blowing past the door. Build a fire in the fireplace and sit down to this classic rustic comfort food at the weathered kitchen table. This is an authentic Italian umami bomb, so rich and savory, often served with rosemary and garlic focaccia, or toasted Kalamata olive bread with cheese, and a rich red wine to stand up to it all.
One of the secrets to Pasta Fagioli is to simmer everything with the rinds of several chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese that you have so cleverly saved for this feast.
And if you trek to the wilds of Italy, the origin of this feast, like Tuscany or Puglia, and you find yourself, as we have, a traveler at night, your car headlights searching in the pitch black for the welcoming home and hearth, with friends and family waiting, and you finally see the warm golden lights in the windows, we hope and pray that this Pasta Fagioli is what awaits you. Enjoy!
2 large bunches of kale, at least two pounds (it will look like far too much, but it’s just right)
1/2 pound smoked bacon, pork or turkey, fried and chopped
1 pound hot Italian pork or turkey sausage or ground turkey thigh (*Note… this requires actual raw ground meat, not processed sausage. If you use plain ground turkey thigh, add paprika, garlic, salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon ground fennel seed, red pepper seeds, dried oregano, red vinegar, mustard seed, garlic and onion.)
3 pounds already prepared Great Northern Beans or 4 cans store bought (we use Trader Joe’s when purchased, or Sun Vista, but homemade is always better)
1 whole head of garlic, roasted
4 large cloves of garlic, fresh and crushed
1/2 cup olive oil (or 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup duck fat for its wildness, and its authenticity, since it was often used in older times in Italy)
32 oz of vegetable broth (if you use store bought, we like Imagine brand)
64 oz of chicken broth (we boil down the bones of a whole roasted chicken after being de-boned. If you use store bought, we like Trader Joe’s)
1 large onion, chopped
12 to 15 big leaves of basil, roughly chopped
6 carrots, cut into thick slices
1 pound mushrooms, fried in duck fat or olive oil (porcini is best, but if out of season or not available, use cremini)
1/2 cup pasta, (traditionally elbow shape is used, but we like the Trofie shape from Rustichella d’abruzzo, or we also like Strozzapreti pasta from Montebello, or from Rustichella d’Abruzzo, we use Casareccia, or we use our own fresh homemade pasta)
1 can Roma tomatoes from Italy, crushed by hand (we use San Marzano tomatoes from )
4 or 6 stubs from the ends of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (whenever you finish a chunk of Parmigiano, keep the stubs in the refrigerator just for this meal)
1 little tin of anchovies or anchovy paste
salt and pepper to taste, usually 2 teaspoons each
Cut the very top off the garlic head, drip olive oil into the garlic slowly so that it seeps into the entire head. When it won’t accept any more oil, place in a garlic roasting clay pot and place in a cold oven. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Allow to cool and then squish the aromatic browned patina garlic out and set aside.
If you are using cremini, cut into thick slices or chunks, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle on powdered porcini (if you have it) on top. Stir and set aside.
Pan fry the sausage, chop into small pieces and set aside.
Pan fry the bacon, chop and set aside. In the same pan with the bacon fats, sauté the mushrooms until toasty. (If you don’t use bacon, sauté the mushrooms in duck fat or olive oil.)
Place the broth into a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Cut and tear the leaves off the tough stalks of the kale and put all of the leaves into the boiling stock. Discard the stalks. Boil the leaves for 15 minutes, and then place in a colander to drain and cool.
In a 14 inch fry pan, heat the olive oil and duck fat, add the chopped onion and fry until opaque. Add the crushed fresh garlic, fry for a minute, and then add the drained kale. At a high heat, fry the kale while occasionally stirring it. Fry for 10 minutes until it is greatly reduced in volume and slightly charred. Add to the stock pot. (Deglaze the pan for the tasty charred bits.)
Place half the beans (2 cans) into a blender, add a cup of liquid from the broth, add the basil, the anchovies, the roasted garlic, and puree until creamy. Add this puree to the broth in the stock pot.
Add to the stock pot the bacon, sausage, the tomatoes, carrots, kale, onion, mushrooms, the other half of the whole beans and the pasta.
Add the ends of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese that you’ve been cleverly saving.
Bring to a slow gentle boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes on low to medium, until the carrots are almost done, but just al dente. Allow to sit for half an hour, covered, so all the ingredients marry.
Serve with a rustic loaf of crusty bread and grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on top.
This is an excellent meal for a family feast or freeze it for later – waiting for some stormy, cold winter night in front of the fireplace. For us, this is Italian soul food at its umami best.