Let this one simmer and bubble all afternoon. That gives the beans plenty of time to become soft and creamy while the sweet browned onions melt into the rich bean broth. Your reward is a stew so thick you could stand a spoon in it and so hearty that the dreariest winter day will feel cozy.
This is my own riff on Pasta e Fagioli, the classic Italian stew of beans and pasta. I've left out the tomatoes from the traditional Italian recipe and brought in some spinach for an extra boost of green. Feel free to include the former or take out the later if you prefer the classic soup.
This recipe also makes a lot! More than enough for two people to eat for dinner every night for a week. To freeze some for later, scoop out the portion you want to freeze before adding the pasta.
I started craving this soup as soon as the evenings started getting chilly enough for a sweater. It's a fantastic one-pot dish for making on a lazy weekend afternoon — you definitely don't want to skimp on the cooking time! What makes this soup so great is all the contrasting textures: creamy slow-cooked beans, chewy pasta, toothsome bits of spinach, crunchy bacon. The flavors also meld into a savory, rich broth as the stew cooks and each ingredient is added in. Oh, man, I'm already hungry for another bowl!
Beans can really vary in how long they take to cook, so it's good to give yourself some leeway when making this. I've had batches where they cooked in 60 minutes and others that took over two hours! If you're concerned about timing this for a dinner party, make the recipe through cooking the beans, let the soup cool, and then refrigerate it until ready to serve — even up to day or two. To serve, warm the soup again and add the pasta.
You'll notice that I soak the beans overnight with a little salt and then cook them with a little more salt. This is a new technique I've been doing since reading about it in Cook's Illustrated. Contrary to the belief that salt makes beans hard, the editors at Cook's Illustrated found that the double dose of salt helps make the beans creamier and prevents the skins from bursting during cooking. It really works!
One-Pot Pasta e Fagioli (Italian Bean and Pasta Stew)
Serves 8 to 10
For the beans: 8 cups water
2 1/2 tablespoons salt, divided
1 pound dried cannellini beans
For the soup:
1/2 pound (5 to 6 pieces) thick-cut bacon , diced (or substitute 1 tablespoon olive oil for vegetarian version)
2 large yellow onions, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup white wine or water
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound pasta
5 thyme sprigs
10 ounces baby spinach
2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
Combine the water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt in a large mixing bowl and stir to dissolve the salt. Add the beans, cover the bowl, and let stand at least 6 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
In a heavy stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, cook the bacon. Once all the fat has rendered, remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all put one tablespoon of bacon fat. Cook the onions slowly with 1/2 teaspoon of salt start to caramelize and turn golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the celery and cook just until the celery is softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Remove half of the onion mixture and reserve with the bacon. Deglaze the pan with one cup of wine or water, scraping up any brown residue that has formed on the bottom of the pan.
Drain and rinse the beans and pour them into the pot with the remaining onions. Add the bay leaf, 1 teaspoon of salt, and enough water to cover the beans and onions by 1 inch. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook for 1 hour, then begin checking the beans for doneness. Check the beans every 15 minutes until they are completely soft and creamy. (This can take up to 2 1/2 hours depending on the age and exact variety of your beans.)
→ Make-Ahead Tip: At this point, the soup can be chilled and refrigerated for a day or two before serving. The soup (or a portion of it) can also be frozen for up to three months.
Set the pot of cooked beans over medium-high heat on the stovetop. Add the bacon, reserved onions, thyme, pasta, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Add more water if necessary so the pasta is submerged.
Add the spinach to the pot and stir until it is wilted. Remove the bay leaf and the thyme stems. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired.
This stew will keep for one week refrigerated.
• Vegetarian Pasta e Fagioli: To make this recipe vegetarian, replace the bacon with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. You can also add 4 ounces of diced baked tofu to the finished soup.
• Soaking the beans with salt: This is a new technique I've been doing since reading about it in Cook's Illustrated. Contrary to the belief that salt makes beans hard, the editors at Cook's Illustrated found that the double dose of salt helps make the beans creamier and prevents the skins from bursting during cooking. It really works!
• Canned Bean Shortcut: To make this with canned beans instead of from scratch, substitute 3 15-ounce cans of beans and swap the water for chicken or vegetable broth. Skip the long cooking time — just bring all the ingredients (except the pasta) to a simmer, add the pasta, then simmer until the pasta is cooked.
This post and recipe have been updated. Originally published, January 5, 2011.