A few weeks ago, while held hostage by a budget airline and their inevitable delays, and trapped in an early morning departure lounge purgatory at Stanstead airport, I found myself – yet again – clutching an oversized, overmilked cappuccino and perusing the magazine section of W H Smith.
I’m devoted to newspapers, but apart from the occasional Time Out when I’m back in London and the even more occasional fat, shiny decor or fashion tome – the ones that seem a good idea at the news stand but inevitably depress me and only redeem themselves when cut up and used to teach small Italian children vocabulary: sofa, chair, coat – I generally don’t buy magazines. Except at the airport that is. Over the last five years, zigzagging back and forth from Rome to London with airlines that seem determined to squeeze every ounce of joy out of flying, I’ve developed an airport magazine habit.
It’s all extremely random. I’ve bought and then slept under the Economist on more than one occasion. I digested marginally more of Time, but still arrived in Rome with it stuck to my cheek. I’ve spent several flights trying to memorize large chunks of Mojo and Rolling Stone in an attempt to impress Vincenzo and Decanter Magazine, Good Housekeeping (for a bad housekeeper) Gardeners World, World of Interiors and Natural Health (which brought me out in hives) have all been purchased and perused at 35,000 feet. I’m not sure what possessed me to buy 220 Triathlon, but I did: just reading it gave me tendonitis. I nearly regurgitated my cappuccino while compulsively flicking through the car crash that is Hello. I discovered I have a soft spot for Vanity Fair in Italian, Quiz Weekly and maybe more surprisingly, National Geographic while flying over the French alps.
Anyway, on this particular delayed flight, although tempted by the Dr Who Adventures, my cappuccino and I bought a food magazine, the summer addition of Jamie magazine. I’ve actually bought this magazine at the airport before, it’s rather like the inimitable Mr Oliver himself: immensely likable, unpretentious, impeccably marketed, accessible, passionate, pucker. The same can be said for the great food and recipes.
I gobbled it all up giddily, inhaling a BBQ special, the a six page spread on ice-cream, an ode to Fish and chips (the brilliant Mathew Fort I should add) and an article on scones and afternoon tea. I inhaled recipes for chicken tikka masala, pub grub and lunchtime pasta. I zigzagged from England to Italy via France taking in India before crashing back to England again – my tummy rumbled. I started folding down corners, if I’d had post-it’s I would have adhered.
Then something happened. It was when I reached the fold-out Monthly menu – ‘four weeks worth of ideas, ingredients and recipes…‘ My heart sank, a wave of exhaustion drowned my enthusiasm and I realised I didn’t want any of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love trying new recipes, but at that precise moment the mere thought of trying any of the 55 beautifully photographed globetrotting monthly menu suggestions in the next four weeks made me feel dizzy. I realised I couldn’t think of many things I’d like less than Mexican on Monday, Greek on Tuesday, Italian on Wednesday, fish and chips on Thursday, chicken tikka masala on Friday, tuna Provencale on Saturday and a full monty of a Sunday roast on Sunday, all punctuated by equally international lunches, snacks and cocktails. I’d like a cupboard full of the all the basics to produce this themepark of grub even less.
Of course I don’t think for a moment Jamie and his team of writers and passionate food people imagine we are going to cook our way through the entire months worth of suggestions, or even half of them, Or do they? Anyway my head, my stomach and I, all utterly exhausted by all the global food excitement and ‘amazing‘ recipes, balanced Jamie magazine on our face and slept for the rest of the flight.
As the train rattled noisily from Ciampino into Rome, as the 170 bus swerved deeply through Piazza Venezia I realised something: as much as I love smoothing back the page of a new recipe, as much as I relish enthusiastic kitchen experimentation and exploration, new flavours and adventures, most of the time I am more than happy with our familiar, well-loved, habitual platefuls. I am deeply content, week after week, month after month with, lets say, spaghetti and tomato sauce – ideally twice a week, tagliatelle with ragu, a omelette, a rare steak with tomato salad, pasta and beans, pasta and brocolli, fried eggs on toast, a plain cake, mashed potato with peas, plain roast chicken, poached fish with mayonnaise. If this is punctuated once, maybe twice a week by the something new, I am even happier. I am always amazed when people tell me they never cook them same thing twice! I nearly always cook things twice, and if they are good, if they become part of our lives, I cook them 123 times. Maybe now you understand why I only write once a week.
So after all that, it seems appropriate that todays recipe is one of the faithful ones, pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with this superb Italian classic – I wasn’t until I moved to Rome – pasta e fagioli is best described as a thick, creamy bean soup (on this occasion made with the exquisite mottled borlotti beans that have a soft, nutty, earthy flavour) studded with more whole beans and fortified with pasta. I’ve written about this soup and others like it before – most notably pasta e ceci – because along with pasta e pommodoro, it’s probably one of the things we eat most.
I like making pasta fagioli as much as I like eating it, door open, radio on, it’s a well practised routine. First the borlotti; cracking open their mottled pods to reveal the exquisite pink and white beans. Then the peeling and chopping, first the garlic, then the onion, carrot and celery, three piles; orange, red and green. Next the gentle sizzle of the soffrito and the scent of garlic and rosemary curling from the pan. Raising the flame and hearing a proper sizzle as you add the tomatoes, beans, bean broth and water to the pan. I like listening to the gentle gurgle as the soup simmers happily on the back of the stove, the amusing squelch as you pass the soup through the food mill and the riotous bubble as the pasta cooks in the chestnut coloured panful.
Then you eat. Now this has to be one of the most delicious, nourishing, honest dishes I know. Vincenzo – who has grown up eating pasta e fagioli – calls it the mothership lunch and goes into a contented trance in it’s presence. For us, this is required eating.
Now, I don’t feel I’ve explained the recipe particularly well today, blame it on my post holiday rambling. If you are going to try this recipe you might like to read the pasta e ceci post too.
Pasta e Fagioli
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 medium red onion very finely diced
- 2 cloves of garlic peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
- 1 small chilli very finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot very finely diced
- 1 stick celery with leaves very finely diced
- a sprig of rosemary
- 150g of peeled, deseeded and chopped tomatoes or tinned plum tomatoes
- 500g shelled fresh borlotti or 170g dried beans soaked and precooked for 30mins less than instructed or 500g of tinned borlotti
- I litre of bean cooking water (add water if you don’t have enough)
- a parmesan rind
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 250g dried pasta(we used the snail-like lumache but ditalini or broken tagliatelle work really well too)
If you are using dried beans soak them for 12 hours or overnight. Drain, cover with fresh water and cook for about 1 and a half hours or until they are nearly cooked (subtract 30 minutes from your usual cooking time), they will finish cooking in the soup. Drain, keep bean water and set aside.
In a large heavy based pan warm the oil and add the onion and garlic, gently saute until they soft and transparent. Add the celery, carrot, chili and rosemary stir once or twice to coat with oil, and then allow to cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes, stir and leave to bubble away gently for another 10 minutes.
Add the beans, stir to coat them thoroughly and then add the bean water and parmesan rind. Cover the pan and bring to a gentle boil and then turn down the heat cook the soup at a lively simmer for about 30 – 40 minutes or until the beans are fully tender. Tinned beans will only need about 20 minutes.
Remove the parmesan rind and the rosemary. You now want to puree about half of the soup by passing it through a food mill or using a stick blender. Once you’ve done this return it to the pan. Season the soup with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Remember you are about to add pasta so be generous with the salt.
Check the soup for density, it should be liquid enough to cook the pasta in so you may need to add a little more water. Bring the soup to a steady, moderate boil and add the pasta. If you are using fresh pasta , it will only take a minute or so, dried pasta will take longer, check the packet for timing – you need to keep an eye on it and stir every now and then, otherwise it may stick. Stop cooking once the pasta is tender but firm to the bite.
Allow the soup to sit and settle for about 10 minutes before serving. Serve with a dribble of extra virgin olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan if you like.
To avoid post lunch slump after such a hearty bowlful, espresso is recommended
It’s really good to be back, I’ve missed being here, I’ve missed you all. I didn’t mean to stay away so long, I even missed my anniversary on the 7th of this month – 2 years of Rachel Eats. Not that it’s too late to celebrate, or more importantly to say thank you to you all for reading. How about we all meet at the bar in Piazza Testaccio at 8 tonight for a prosecco, I’m buying. Oh and thank you for all your nice comments and messages over the last few weeks, sorry I haven’t replied yet, I will.