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Italian Pasta and Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagioli)

Serves 4 to 6

In our house this is known as Pasta Fazool, but it is also known as Pasta e Fagioli or, the formal Italian title, Zuppa di Fagioli con la Pasta. There are two different versions of Pasta Fazool, one with tomatoes, the other without. My introduction to this hearty soup was from Italian friends. This is their recipe with a few minor changes. This soup is a delicious and comforting main dish and one pot meal, needing only some crusty bread on the side. It takes time to make, but the results are so rewarding. To cut the time significantly, the ham can be made ahead and refrigerated for several days. To serve on a busy weeknight, cook the soup on the weekend but do not add the pasta until you reheat and serve. I sometimes make this on New Year's Eve, served from a large soup tureen that I rarely use for any other purpose. There are a lot of quick-cooking renditions out there and some are very good. However, none can compare to the real thing.

Pasta e Fagioli Recipe Photo

Cook the ham hocks in 2 cups water until tender, about 2 hours. Remove meat from bones, discarding fat, and chop. Reserve meat and cooking liquid.

In a 4-quart saucepan, bring beans and 2 quarts water to a boil for 2 minutes. Remove from burner and let soak, covered, for 20 minutes. Drain beans, reserving liquid and adding enough fresh water to the liquid to make 2 quarts.

Meanwhile, chop fat back, onions, celery and garlic into a paste (called a battuto); this can be done with a large chef's knife or in the food processor. Heat olive oil in a large kettle over medium heat. Add the battuto and cook until the fat is completely rendered and just starting to turn golden, about 10 minutes, being careful not to brown. Add the beans, reserved bean cooking liquid, ham and ham cooking liquid to the kettle. Bring to a boil, reduce and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Skim most of the fat from the top of the soup. (Can be prepared to this point and refrigerated for several hours or up to three days.)

Before serving, bring soup back to a boil; add pasta and simmer, covered, until tender, about 10 minutes, depending on pasta used. (If soup appears too brothy, remove the lid; if soup appears too thick while pasta is cooking, add extra water.) Taste for seasoning. Serve immediately, passing Parmesan cheese.

Notes: The fat back used in this recipe is the type with no meat. If unavailable, you can use salt pork, but remove all the meat and reserve for another time. You will need to use your judgment on the amounts of pasta and liquid needed, as beans do not always soak up the same amount depending on their age. Feel free to use other types of dried beans. Ferdinand sometimes used large dry lima beans. Cannellini or white kidney beans would also be very good. This soup is very good leftover. However, more liquid may need to be added when you reheat as the beans and pasta will soak up more.