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Pasta e Fagioli (Italian pasta and bean soup)

February 07, 2007

2 1/2 cups dried cannellini beans, or 2 (1-pound) cans of cannellini
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed (mince, if desired)
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
3 ribs of celery, strings removed and coarsely chopped
1 sweet red pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 pound ham or 2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, julienned (optional, omit for a vegetarian version)
1 pound fresh baby spinach leaves (long stems removed, if desired)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon pesto, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 (15-ounce) cans whole tomatoes
6 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
Heel (rind) of a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1/2 pound good quality dried pasta (ditali or small elbows)
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Good quality olive oil for serving
Grated Parmesan cheese

If using dried beans, soak them overnight, picking over to remove stones or bean skins. Cook the beans in 7 cups of clean water until soft.

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In a large saucepan, lightly saut the garlic in the oil, then stir in onions, carrots, celery and pepper and cook over medium heat until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the ham (if using), spinach, basil or pesto, and oregano. Stir for a few minutes, then add the drained tomatoes, crushing into big chunks with a spoon (reserving juice). Cook at medium-high heat, stirring until the mixture makes a thick sauce.

Add the reserved tomato juice, stock and cannellini beans. For extra flavor, add the heel of a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano (do not serve the wedge). Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the pasta and boil gently until it is al dente, about 10 minutes. If soup is too thick, add a little water. It should have a stew-like consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle on the chopped parsley, ladle soup into bowls, garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Variations: Use 1 pound of lean ground beef or 1 pound of Italian sausage cooked separately in a skillet with fat drained. Add the beef or sausage when the soup is almost done so it is not overcooked.

Serves 8 to 10.

- Courtesy of Janet Broadwater

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