Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A tale of 3 pasta fagioli's

I'm not going to even go into the pronounciation of the recipe. You're all on your own for that one. "fazool" "Fagool" "fag-ee-oh-lee" you can pronounce it any way you want to. I'm also not going to take a hard-line approach on the recipe itself, as there is considerable discord in my own family about how to properly execute the dish. My mom used to make it a lot when we were kids because its cheap and it makes a huge pot and we were poor and there was, like, a bunch of us. She always made it with dittalini pasta and cannelini beans (hence the pasta and the fagioli in the recipe's title). Basically, other than an onion and some tomato paste diluted in a couple cans of water, that was pretty much it. Then we would throw on a bunch of grated parmesan cheese (the cheap kind that comes in the green can) and call it a meal. Along with some crusty Italian bread of course. Well, my mom ended up classing up the recipe later on by switching to shell pasta and real parmesan cheese and maybe adding a little fresh garlic to the mix. As kids started moving out, she started to have money for more than just cans of tomato paste and water.
Anyway, my sister Val disagreed with this "cutting and running" policy of changing much beloved childhood recipes, so she sticks by the tried and true method of preparing the dish. She also omits the fagioli portion of the meal by not adding the cannelini beans, since we never liked those anyway and would often leave them in the bottom of the bowl, uneaten. As a side note, I will state that my sister Val takes this extremely conservative approach to all her executions of oldy but goody recipes, and consequently, I always go to her when I want to taste macaroni and cheese exactly like my grandmother used to make it, down to the elbow pasta, butter soaked breadcrumbs on top and even as far as the Wishbone Italian salad dressing that accompanies the salad of iceburg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and canned black olives. I'm not kidding man. Not even my grandmother makes it as good as she used to the way my sister does. Everyone else in the family seems to be afflicted with this need to modify and enhance. I have to admit, its nice to have a taste of the old days once in a while.
However, my sister Rene' takes a completely different philosophical approach to constructing her pasta fagioli. My sister Rene' is unhappy with any recipe that does not call for meat and alcohol, so this staid vegetarian classic is an assault on all her senses. She adds chicken to the pot, making it something that would more accurately be named pasta y fagioli y pollo. She then spices up the broth by using chicken stock instead of plain water and spiking it liberally with wine. Red wine. And then drinking a liberally portioned glass along with...
Finally, I in all my middle child glory must take this mess of a family recipe and attempt to make sense out of it all (or at least a fairly edible pot of soup). I must conserve the flavor of the old without ignoring several extremely sensible modifications that have been very succesfully implemented over the years. So here goes. Here is my middle child attempt to share a family recipe that satisfies the sentimental taste for childhood while taking something from each individual version of the dish. Most likely, as per the fate of every middle child "peacemaker," my final result will satisfy nobody and at least one (if not all) of the the family members who have been humbly biographied will be offended by my attempts at amalgomation. Oh well, here goes anyway...

Ingredients: One onion, 4 cloves of garlic, 1 can of cannelini beans, 1 little can of tomato paste, 1 box of dittalini or other preferred pasta (something fairly small with holes is best I believe), 32 ounce container of chicken or vegetable stock, 1 cup red wine, 2.5 cups of water, salt and pepper (to taste), assorted italian spices to taste (basil, parsley, oregano), garlic powder, onion powder, 1/4 cup of fresh grated parmesan cheese.
Sweat the onion in a liberal coating of olive oil (Sweating is a fine culinary skill that falls just short of sauteeing. You don't want to hear the onion singing in the pan, you just want to barely hear it humming). Add the garlic cloves when the onions are just starting to turn clear. Add a pinch of salt. A few rounds of the fresh ground pepper mill. Pour in the wine and let the sweaty onion and garlic get drunk for a minute. Add the can of tomato paste. Add the stock and the water and pump up the heat. Let the whole thing come to a boil and then reduce the heat so it just simmers for awhile. Meanwhile, boil some water and cook the pasta to al dente perfection. If you don't know how to do that then lord help you, because I surely can't. Drain the pasta and set it to the side. When the soup seems to be pretty well simmered (in other words, I don't know how long to cook it at this stage, but hey, there's no meat in this one so we don't have to worry about salmonella), add in a good pinch of all the italian seasonings as well as the onion and garlic powders. Taste it. It should hopefully taste good at this point (please don't tell Mrs. Harris my freshman English prof that I just used the word hopefully in the entirely un-grammatically correct manner that most people generally use the word hopefully in). Add in the beans (they don't need to cook, just heat through so that's why you don't add them until the end). Add in the parmesan cheese. And if you grated the cheese yourself, hopefully (there we go again) you grated plenty of extra to serve at the table since almost everyone enjoys a liberal sprinkling of fresh parmesan added tableside. Stir it up. And here is where my mom definitely got with the program after many years of doing it wrong. Put the pasta in individual serving bowls, and ladle the soup over top of it. She used to add in the pasta to the soup and it was fine for the initial serving but by the time we got around to seconds (and leftovers, God help us) the pasta had become most un-al dente by virtue of the fact that it continued cooking in the broth and frequently soaked up the soupiness to the point where the leftovers took on a gouloshy characteristic. You must definitely keep the pasta and the soup seperate until they are on the very brink of consumption. And this is my humble attempt at merging three distinct versions of the same dish into one delicious entree soup that is appropriate for budgets large and small, and will almost surely satisfy the hunger of any self-respecting Italian or wannabe Italian. And when it comes to eating, are we not all wannabe Italians? If I was my sister Val (or the Pioneer Woman, who I'm pretty sure she stole this from) I would now complete this blog by making the soup, preparing a delicious-looking portion in a rustic pottery bowl, garnishing with fresh herbs, and taking a picture of it with a very pricy camera. I would then upload that picture to my computer, do unspeakable things to it in Photoshop, and tack it on to the bottom of this post. That's what I would do if I was Val. If I was Rene', I would serve up a portion of this soup to a large group of friends, pour myself a liberal glass of red wine, and consume both (though it must be admitted, I would probably consume more of one than the other, I will leave it to you to decide which). If I were my mother, I would make this soup, leave it on the stove for my dad and go out for a walk with Violet, after she helped me organize my shoe closet and paint my ballerina room. Since I am me and none of these people, what I will most likely do is nothing. Having gotten this out of my middle child afflicted system, I will most likely go to bed, sleep like a baby and never think about or make pasta fagioli again in my life. For me, writing about it was the cathartic thing to do after watching Bill Clinton rally the Democrats to a unanimous backing of Obama at the Democratic National Convention. So that's exactly what I did.


xraycher said...

I must take issue with the "fake" parmesan cheese! I might have tried to get by with that once, maybe twice. Also, you should have included the fact that no matter what version you use, Barilla pasta cooks up right just about every time! Nice way to start my morning reading your blog! Love you, Mom

Rene' said...

....I'm almost sure you assumed I would be the sister taking offense to your blog, but on the contrair!!!! Thank you for your mention of me and my love of wine in your "family recipe" blog! And be sure to tell everyone what a wonderful time you always have when you come to my house for "pasta fagioli y pollo" because the meat is good and the wine is plentiful!! Love ya! Mean it!

Val said...

OK, so I am very impressed that you have begun blogging. It's THE thing to do.

One word of advice from your dear recipe preserving older sister. Break it up into some paragraphs, dear. Very difficult to read this way, and we want to read it. Very funny. The PW herself would approve, I think. :-)

Want me to make you a sweet ass blog header in photoshop?