Anyone who thinks Italian food is all about pasta hasn’t been to Tuscany. In this region abundantly blessed by the Goddess of Culinary Awesomeness, beans and bread are the humble staples and Immortal Beloved of its denizens. Just consider the ways in which stale bread gets put to use, a glorious instance of lean mean frugality breeding inspired ingenuity: in soups like ribollita and pappa al pomodoro, or the even humbler, bare-bones pan molle. But it is beans–the locals being referred to as mangiafagioli (beaneaters), and not always kindly, by other Italians–that claim pride of place in the inner chambers of Tuscan hearts. There are so many delicious varieties, too, in addition to the well-known cannellini, and they merit seeking out and tucking into your suitcase on your next trip to this patch of the Bel Paese: di Sorana, tondini, zolfini, cicerchie, et al. Whisperingly toothsome on the outside, creamy on the inside, these diminutive Mediterranean beauties are to hungry toscani what flush fat-cats are to high-priced hookers.
Italian food, in its true form–its real-deal incarnation–is essentially only about two things: simplicity and quality ingredients. In other words, use the best ingredients you can find–keeping in mind everything has its season–and don’t f*** around with them too much. Let their flavors sing on your tongue.
Which brings us to our new menu item, a celebration of the bean–and aria-worthy simplicity–if ever there was one: pasta e fagioli, a soothing, protein-packed soup lively with fresh herbs and a good manciata of handmade pasta. [Aside: I, Elizabeth, grew up in Detroit eating Campbell's Bean & Bacon; Paolo got this. Geography is a cruel mistress, indeed.]
Another super-Tuscan soup that we often enjoy at home and which features beans in all their earnest forthrightness is the zuppa lombarda. (Don’t let the name fool you; this poor-man’s dish was born near Florence as cantine-fare for hungry railway workers from Lombardy). This easy-to-prepare, inexpensive, tasty and nourishing soup should be in everyone’s short-order repertoire; it’s one of those dishes whose near-angelic purity of intention has the power to deeply satisfy even the most hunger-mongering soul. And maybe even achieve world peace.
Paolo says there are three cardinal rules to keep in mind when making this soup: you need good beans, good bread, and good olive oil. Here’s the recipe:
- as many dried (never canned) cannellini beans (or other small Italian varietal) as you think you want to eat, soaked overnight
- a clove or two of garlic, peeled
- a few fresh sage leaves
- a few slices of rustic, hearty bread (stale is fine)
- extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
It’ll be quicker if you cook the beans in a pressure cooker, but you can certainly do the stove-top/low heat option if you want (depending on type of bean, it takes about an hour and a half, but keep checking). Cook beans (after a post-soak draining and rinsing) with the garlic cloves and sage until done, in abundant water (which will serve as the broth). And by done we mean a slight intact firmness that segues into creaminess, not mush. Salt to taste.
Get out some roomy individual bowls. Toast thick slices of your favorite crusty bread. While the bread is still warm from the toaster, rub as liberally as you like with a raw clove of garlic. Place a generous slice (or two if they’re small) in each bowl. Ladle some beans with the hot broth over the bread, drizzle with good olive oil, and crack some fresh black pepper over the whole lot. *
Serve this humble dish like we do at home with some equally simple greens such as kale, chard or dandelion sautéed in garlic and olive oil, or with a big green salad, some more bread if you want, and a no-frills, honest glass of earthy red.
You’ll be an avid beaneater, too, before you know it.
* Obviously, you can render this gluten-free by simply forgoing the bread. And it will be equally glorious and nutritious.