When I think back on the food my mother served during my childhood, I’m always struck by how eclectic it was.
We had American food like the rest of the people we knew—a nice rib roast for Sunday dinner and hamburgers on Saturday nights. A happy memory for me is eating barbecued spareribs in front of the TV to watch “Superman.” Life was good.
But often she turned to her Sicilian heritage and cooked what could mostly be considered peasant food: chicken soup with escarole and shreds of egg, lentils with elbow macaroni and chickpeas simply prepared with olive, salt and pepper. When she cooked stewing beef and bones to make broth, we would eat the boiled beef, along with some potatoes, for a separate dinner.
There was no fast food and no take-out. Not ever! This was our comfort food, especially in the dead of winter.
If there is one so-called Italian “comfort food” that would win a popularity contest out there in the culinary world, I think it would be pasta and beans. Now, you might know it as pasta fagioli or in Italian-American vernacular, pasta fazool. I have eaten pasta fazool in my mother’s kitchen, in wonderful New York restaurants and even made (surprisingly) by my younger son. Each one of these dishes has been a little different, and I have loved them all.
The recipe that follows is from “The Sopranos Family Cookbook.” It is one of my favorites because it is more like a stew than a “brothy” soup and also because it has a touch of tomato. You can make it with dried beans, soaked and cooked briefly beforehand, or good canned beans, which have been rinsed and drained. Find some good, crusty bread, sliced oranges and apples, and a fruity Italian red wine like Valpolicella. Be comforted on a cold January night.
- 8 ounces (about 1¼ cups) dried cannellini or great northern beans
- 1 celery rib, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes, canned Italian tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- ½ cup water or chicken broth
- A pinch of dried red pepper flakes (more to taste)
- 8 ounces small pasta, like ditalini
- Parmesan cheese (if desired)
- If using dried beans, put them in a bowl with cold water to cover by 1 inch at least 4 hours or overnight.
- When ready to prepare the recipe, drain the beans and place them in a pot with fresh water to cover by ½ inch. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover the pot, and cook until the beans are soft (about 1 hour). Instead of these steps with dried beans, you can substitute 3 cups canned beans, rinsed and drained.
- In a separate saucepan or soup pan, cook the celery and garlic in olive oil over moderate heat. When the garlic is golden in color, remove it from the pan. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, water (or broth), pepper flakes, and salt to taste. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the mixture is thickened.
- Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid or the canned beans to the tomato sauce.
- Bring the mixture back to simmer, mashing some of the beans with the back of a large spoon.
- Stir in the pasta, stirring often, until the pasta is al dente. Add a little water or broth if it seems too thick. But remember, it is a stew!
- I add lots of grated Parmesan cheese to this dish, although the recipe does not include it.
If you splurged on your holiday roast beef, you will love this economical but nourishing meal (a little austerity in January).
And remember, as Dean Martin sang to us in 1953: “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, that’s amore!”
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