The man in the painting is wearing a white shirt, brown waistcoat and well-worn straw hat. He is eating a bowl of beans. There are also spring onions, mushrooms, bread rolls, a jug and glass of wine on the table, but the beans – small with black eyes – are the focus; a spoonful of them poised before the open mouth of il mangiafagioli (the bean eater) – also the name of the painting.
This delightful and hungry-making work of the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci is dated between 1583 and 1585, almost a century after Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors landed, uninvited, in Mesoamerica, home of some of the most politically and socially advanced nations in the world and pocketed – among other things – their beans.
Some pulses – lentils, peas, chickpeas and broad beans – were already established crops in Italy, but the conquistadors returned with Phaseolus vulgaris, a large genus including kidney, pinto, white, navy, cranberry (borlotti), sulphur and black-eyed beans, all of which settled, diversified and thrived in their new environment. This had a profound effect on Italy, and Europe more broadly. Umberto Eco puts it simply in his essay How The Bean Saved Civilisation: “Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent … Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist.”
And neither would pasta e fagioli. To say a soupy dish of pasta and beans was the reason I settled in Rome 15 years ago would be an exaggeration (also untrue: the reason was my privilege – and right to freedom of movement). It did, however, play a vital part. Soft, brown, substantial and with a whiff of rosemary, a plate of thimble-shaped pasta and brown beans was a dish that won me over, without me knowing I had been won over. It was one of the first dishes I learned to cook in Rome, that taught me about a soffritto, the value of the water the beans have cooked in (but also the beauty of tins) and the thickening power of pasta – how quickly a soft soup can seize into a solid.
Pasta e fagioli is also a dish that sums up the unity and variation of Italian cooking; a singular dish that can be made in multiple ways. I have eaten versions made with four ingredients and with 12, with all manner of herbs and of beans (white, speckled, fresh, dried and tinned); with tomato and without; brothy versions and creamy ones. Every region of Italy has a version, every cook who makes it a preference … and this is mine. The aim is a soft, wavy consistency; after all, this is a minestra of pasta and beans, continent-shifting and continent-saving food for mangiafagioli, to be eaten with a spoon.
Pasta e fagioli
The key question with pasta and fagioli is about consistency. Lots of recipes leave the beans whole, others puree a third to a half of the soup, so it is soft and gloopy: the decision is yours. There is no doubt that the best flavour comes from cooking the pasta directly in the soup. But doing so means you need to keep an eye on it: stir diligently to stop it sticking, adding more water if need be.
Prep 10 min
Soak overnight (if using dried beans)
Cook 1 hr 15 min
300g dried borlotti beans, soaked overnight, or 700g drained tinned beans (most of 2 x 400g tins)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
2 parsley stalks (no leaves), finely chopped
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary
1 pinch dried red chilli flakes
1 small potato, peeled and diced
200g pasta, ditalini, broken tagliatelle, maltagliati, or other small shapes
If you are using dried beans, pour off the overnight soaking liquid. Tip into a pan, cover with two litres of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for an hour, or until the beans are tender. Leave to rest in the cooking liquid until you are ready to use them.
In a heavy-based pan, over a medium-low heat, gently fry the onion, celery, parsley stalks and a pinch of salt in the olive oil until the vegetables are soft and fragrant.
Finely chop the leaves of one sprig of rosemary and add, with the other stalk, left whole, to the pan, with a pinch of red chilli flakes, and cook for few minutes more.
Add the diced potato and beans, stir, and add 1.3 litres of liquid: either the bean cooking liquor with water added, or just water and a good pinch of salt. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes. Now, if you want, you can take out a third of the soup, puree it and return it to the pan.
Add the pasta and raise the heat so the soup boils the pasta until al dente. Keep stirring and add a little more water if necessary, so you have a soft, spoonable consistency.
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/mar/09/pasta-beans-rachel-roddy-recipe-pasta-e-fagioli