I fell in love with pasta e fagioli, the ubiquitous Italian soup, the first time I tasted it. I recall one particular version early in my reviewing career that was especially notable. It was served at Toscanelli, a little mom and pop osteria where Mario and Evita Morosi were the pop and mom. It’s long gone, but if anyone ever forces me to sit down and list the best restaurants I’ve reviewed in Central Florida, Toscanelli would certainly make the cut. And the pasta e fagioli would be on my list of best things I’ve tasted.
Why? It’s just a simple bean and noodle soup. Yet if I’m dining at an Italian restaurant and it’s on the menu, I’m almost certain to order it.
Then one day not long ago it dawned on me. The reason I like pasta e fagioli is because it reminds me of the ham, bean and noodle soup that my mother made so often when I was a kid. So it is the very definition of a comfort food for me. If I had played the curmudgeonly critic in the “Ratatouille” movie, the rat would have made this soup for me – and Disney would have had to rename and recast the movie. Maybe the star of “Fagioli” would have been a ferret.
It isn’t an exact match to the Italian version. And in fact there are many variations. (I’m not much of a fan of any that have tomato in the broth.) But most use ditalini, the short macaroni. My mom made her own egg noodles, long and thick. She’d use her wooden rolling pin to flatten the dough, then roll it up and slice it with her utility knife. Then she’d toss the rolled noodles until they fell open into strands. I’ve tried doing that and it never works for me.
My mom died about 13 years ago so I can’t have her show me how it’s done, and I can no longer experience her soup, though I can still taste it in my memory. (And just a side note here: If you’re still fortunate to have a mother or grandmother – or any parent – who makes something you love to eat, you’re crazy if you don’t pull out your ubiquitous smartphone and record the process next time. You’ll cherish that video someday.)
With Mother’s Day this past weekend, I decided to make the soup myself in her memory. I’d share the recipe with you but there isn’t one. But this is how it’s done.
Take about a pound of white beans – navy, great northern, cannellini – put them in a pot and add enough water to cover the beans by an inch or two. Put a lid on the pot and leave to soak overnight.
Drain the beans from the soak water and put them in a large soup pot (I use a 12-quart because I like to make a lot of soup). Add water, enough to cover the beans and the other things you’ll add.
The things you’ll add are: a few chopped carrots, a couple of roughly chopped onions, and a sachet of peppercorns and fresh rosemary sprigs (celery is fine if you want it; I don’t put it in mine). You’ll also want to add a couple of smoked ham hocks or a ham bone. I put both in my soup this weekend.
Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Then just leave it alone for the next two and a half hours. (Others may tell you to simmer only until the beans are no longer hard, but give it the extra time.)
You can use store-bought egg noodles but I can’t – it just wouldn’t be the same.
So to make the noodles I put a cup of all-purpose flour in a bowl and add a large pinch of salt. Make a well in the middle of the flour mound so that it looks like a volcano. Crack two eggs into the well and using a fork begin to beat the eggs. As you keep beating, let the fork pull in a little bit of the flour. Keep doing that, turning the bowl as needed, until you’ve incorporated all of the flour. It’ll be sticky, but don’t add more flour just yet.
Turn the dough onto a well floured work surface and knead it. Now you can sprinkle a little more flour – just a little at a time – until it’s no longer sticky. Knead it for about five minutes.
Put the ball of dough in a bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Put it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Instead of a rolling pin, I use my Imperia pasta roller. (I’m not sure how my mom would have felt about that.) The cutters on the pasta machine are too narrow for my taste so I lay the flattened dough on a floured wooden board and cut strips using a pizza cutter. Put on a drying rack (it also works to hang the strips of noodles on a clothes drying rack) until dried.
Meanwhile, remove the hocks and/or ham bone and, once cooled, pick off any viable meat and return it to the pot.
You can add all the noodles to the large stock pot or portion some of the soup into a smaller pot and add as many noodles as you like. The magical thing about using your own homemade noodles is that the flour will serve to thicken the broth. (Note: If you intend to freeze some of the soup it’s better to leave the noodles out and then add them when you thaw and heat the soup.)
Ladle into a bowl, drizzle a little olive oil on top if you like (that’s how they did it at Toscanelli) and cry, just a little.