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Comfort calls


It’s getting to the time of year when eating seasonal in Northern Europe starts to get a tad monotonous. There’s only so much I can do with a leek (see here and here for starters). What I wouldn’t do for a freshly podded pea or a pert stick of asparagus. Coming soon to a field near me.

The inevitable early April cold snap, despite some balmy and glorious March spring weather, isn’t helping. Just as well I was too lazy to put my Winter coats away last week. Anyway, all this means that there are plenty of evenings when hunkering down and making do with what’s in the store cupboard is mightily appealing.

We treated ourselves to a roast chicken last weekend, so I had a vat of homemade chicken stock waiting in the fridge. Yes, you too should ALWAYS make stock from a chicken carcass. Add a carrot/leek/onion and a bay leaf and let simmer for a couple of hours. It’s the only way to get every last bit of goodness from the chicken, and also a MUCH more delicious and nutritious stock for risottos, soups and grain cooking than a shop bought cube.

So, I had my stock, and I didn’t fancy venturing out. This soup, which has recently entered the household favourite list, seemed the obvious choice as it’s made almost entirely from basic pantry items. Simply known as ’pasta e fagioli’ (pasta and beans) in italian, it is a traditional ‘peasant’s’ soup from Italy - presumably because it’s dirt cheap to make as well as being wholesome, hearty and utterly delicious. Those italian peasants sure know how to eat.

I was served this for the first time at a casual Sunday lunch cooked up by the lovely LC, who then shared her Anna Del Conte recipe with me. I’ve since made two versions, slightly adapting each time depending on what I have at home. LC’s top Italian tip was to add old parmesan rinds, which turn delectably stringy and tangy and chewy. I’d never even thought to keep the rinds, but this is a mighty good reason. I skip the pancetta which the original recipe calls for - if you’re using good quality stock you don’t need it, I don’t think. If you like, add some when you cook the onion and carrots at the beginning. I use a leek instead of celery because, cf above, I usually have one lying around. My first batch was with small red kidney beans, and the second with white. I would say go for a larger bean if you can (borlotti is the classic choice), which gives a better texture. For the pasta, anything goes really, but I prefer thicker shapes with plenty of bite.

Italian pasta and bean soup

Serves 5, takes about 1.5 hours

A warming, hearty and comforting soup, with, you guessed it, pasta and beans. Supper at home, lunch with friends, made up and frozen for a rainy day...slurp away.

* Dried beans (borlotti/cannellini/kidney) - 1.5 cups

* Olive oil - a few glugs

* Onion - 1, peeled and chopped

* Leek - 1, cleaned and sliced

* Carrot - 1, sliced

* Garlic - 2 cloves, peeled and finely sliced

* Bay leaf - 2

* Thyme - leaves from a few sprigs

* Stock (chicken or veg) - 1.7 L

* Tinned chopped tomatoes - 400g

* Parmesan rinds (optional) - a couple

* Dried pasta - a generous handful for each serving

To serve

* Fresh herbs (dill/parsley/basil) - a small handful, chopped

* Parmesan, grated

Soak the beans in a large bowl of water the night before you’re going to make the soup.

In a large saucepan, fry the onion, leek, carrot, garlic and dried herbs in a few glugs of olive oil. Leave to soften, covered, for about ten minutes.

Drain and rinse the beans, and add them to the pan along with the stock and tomatoes. Fill up the empty tomato tin once with water to get the last of the tomato out and pour this into the pan too. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until the beans are tender. The time will vary depending on which type of beans you’ve used and how long they’ve been soaked for, but anything between 30 minutes and an hour. You can’t overcook this so leave for an hour if you can!

With a hand blender, whizz a few times to roughly blend the soup, leaving plenty of whole beans/carrot slices/leek slices etc floating around. The original recipe calls for you to remove half the beans and blend them, but you get mostly the same effect this way, with less washing up. Phew.

Simmer the soup for another 15 minutes or so, adding the parmesan rinds if using. Season with salt and pepper now unless you're cooking for a babe.

Add a large handful of pasta per serving. Simmer until the pasta is just al dente.

Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and grated parmesan. Make sure each bowl gets a bit of gooey parmesan rind.

The only thing to watch here is if you don’t eat all the soup in one sitting (it’s quite a potful!), try and get all the pasta out when you serve it. Otherwise when you reheat it for the next time the previous pasta will go all soggy, which nobody likes. Add a new batch of pasta of course the next time round.


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