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X Italian Pasta Dishes
Pasta e fagiole
Pasta e Fagiole or Tagliatelle e Fagiole (Pasta with Beans, Version I)
Originated from: Casacalenda, Molise, Italy
Occasion: Any time
Contributed by: Mary Melfi (her mother's recipe)

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For every day pasta dough [Tagliatelle]

4 cups flour
1 to 1 1/2 cups water

For cooking pasta

A big pot of water
1/2 tablespoon salt

For sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, whole [traditional method] or chopped
2 cups dried white cannelloni beans or white pea beans (or 2 cans of beans, 19 oz each)
1 bay leaf (optional)
1/2 cup water [or more] in which beans were cooked in
1/4 pound fresh pork belly, cut into bite-sized pieces -- 1 1/2 inches long by 3/4 inch wide (optional)*
3 dried sweet red peppers
1 teaspoon salt

Seasonings (optional):
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon mint, finely chopped

*Generally speaking, in pre World War II Southern Italy "paste e fagioli" was a meatless dish, but the well-to-do did add "ciccioli," bite-sized chunks of fresh pork belly, to enhance the flavor of the dish. Fresh pork belly is often sold as panchetta (sometimes spelled, "pancetta") in Italian butcher shops -- but please note that the pancehetta used in this dish is Not the cured panchetta that is readily available and offered rolled up and ready to eat; "ciccioli" are made with "fresh" panchetta -- this meat is generally only available in Italian butcher shops in the wintertime (Apparently few Italians ask for it in the summertime, so it is rarely up for sale), what is often sold as fresh pork belly in large North American supermarkets is not good enough as it is generally pre-salted and its taste is rather despicable.


To make the pasta dough:

Step 1. To make home-made pasta the old-fashioned way you put the 4 cups or so of flour on a floured wooden board, gather it all up into a mound, make a well or hole in the center, then add water a little at a time, slowly mixing the water and flour.

Step 2. Form the mixture into a thick ball of dough. Continue mixing until the ball of dough cannot absorb any more water (if the dough is too dry add more water, if it's too wet, add more flour).

Step 3. Knead the enough on the well-floured wooden board for about ten minutes. [For those who have a Kitchen Aid or any other type of electric kneader, the process is ridiculously simple and no explanation is required.]

Step 4. When you have a pasta dough that is smooth and malleable, form a ball, flour it, and then place it in a container. Using clear plastic wrap cover the container. Place a kitchen towel over the container (to keep the dough warm).

Step 5. Let the dough rest for four or five hours at room temperature.

Step 6. Take a piece of "rested" dough (about 2" x 2"), flatten it with your hands, and then pass it through the pasta maker at the widest setting. If it doesn't come out nice and smooth, flour the pasta sheet and pass it through the pasta machine again (The process of passing the dough through the pasta machine, besides flattening it out, also "kneads" it).

Step 7. Adjust the pasta machine to a smaller setting, and pass the pasta sheet through the roller once again, until you get the desired thickness -- about 1/8 of an inch. The second to last setting should be about right on a pasta maker.

Step 8. Adjust the pasta maker and pass the sheets of dough through the tagliatelle-style form so that one has strips of dough that are about 1/2 inch wide.

Step 9. Cut the 1/2 inch wide strips of dough 3 inches long so that one gets pasta that resembles egg noodles but as it uses no eggs it is called tagliatelle -- 3" x 1/2". Please note that in Italy the size of the tagliatelle may differ from region to region, town to town.

Step 10. Let the pasta dry a little while you prepare the sauce or alternatively freeze the cut pasta, and then use it when needed.

To prepare the beans:

Step 1. Place dried white beans in water and soak overnight.

Step 2. Cook soaked beans for about half an hour to an hour (the amount of time depends on the size of the beans). Add a bay leaf to the cooking (if desired).

Step 3. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid.

Obviously, if one is using canned beans, steps 1 and 2, are not followed.

To make the sauce:

Step 1. Peel garlic. Keep whole [traditional method] or chop..

Step 2. Chop the fresh pork belly into bite-size pieces.

Step 3. Crush dried sweet red peppers into bite-size pieces.

Step 4. Heat olive oil in a deep pan.

Step 5. Add garlic, pork belly pieces and crushed sweet dried red peppers. Fry until most of the fat from the pork belly is rendered.

Step 6. Add the beans, with about 1/4 cup of the reserved liquid [water] the beans were cooked in -- the amount of liquid depends on personal preference. Add salt.

To cook the pasta:

Step 7. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt.

Step 11. Cook the pasta (about 4 minutes).

Step 12. Drain the pasta.

To prepare the pasta:

Step 13. Place the drained pasta in a large bowl. Add about 1/4 cup of the prepared sauce to the pasta. Mix well.

Step 14. Place the tossed pasta in individual dishes. Add extra sauce on top of each dish.

Step 15. Serve warm.


Of all Southern foods "pasta e fagiole" is possibly the most famous -- or rather, the most notorious, as it is The dish that defines Italian peasant cookery. For most folks who tilled the land prior to World War II, peasant cookery was not cookery at all but just something one did to fend off starvation -- subsistent farming at its worse. So while Wikipedia, the world's most loved free encyclopedia (I love it too!) may state that "pasta e fagiole" is one of Italians' "favorite" dishes, I don't believe this is so at all. In fact, many older North Americans of Italian extraction will cite the reason they immigrated from Europe to this continent in the 1950s was to get away from the monotonous diet of eating "pasta e fagiole" day in and day out. Nowadays, nutritionists have sold us on the value of beans. They're high in protein and a good substitute for meat, but prior to World War II beans were seen as the food of the poor, and as such were perceived as highly unsavory. Actually, "pizza di grandini" and polenta," two well-known corn-based dishes from Molise, were perceived as being even less unsavory than the bean-and-pasta dishes. The poorest of the poor had to contend with a steady diet of corn-based foods, while the average poor household managed to get in a one or two pasta dishes a week. [For more notes on "pizza di grandini" see "Traditional Vegetarian Dishes and/or Traditional Breads and Pizzas"]. So while many Italians may now claim to love "pasta e fagioli" few did so in the 1930s as the dish was then associated with "la miseria" -- poverty. Believe it or not my own mother never made "pasta e fagioli" (tossed in white sauce) in this country. I suppose she avoided making it as it reminded her of what she had to endure in Italy. For the past fifty years or so that I have been living in Canada I can't say I ever ate "pasta e fagioli" at my mother's or at any of my relatives' that I can remember. My mother claims she did occasionally make "pasta e fagioli" with red sauce, but I don't recall eating it [N.B. Pasta e fagioli tossed in red sauce, one with tomatoes, had more status than one tossed with olive oil -- white sauce, and as such was considered a bit higher on the Appeal Hierarchy. The reason red sauce or a sauce made with tomatoes was considered more appealing was because the dish cost more to make. Tomatoes at that time in history cost more to produce than olive oil -- hard to believe but so it was].... In fact, I never asked my mother how "pasta e fagioli" was made. I assumed it was a dish not worth making as it was constantly spoken of in a derogatory manner. However, this year my curiosity get the better of me and I did ask my mother for the recipe. My mother obliged me by preparing the dish for me. She made it with white sauce and with red sauce as well. To her great surprise she found that "pasta e fagiole" tossed in white sauce was quite good. And so did I! The dried sweet red peppers added in the sauce gave the dish a unique flavor. Quite lovely, actually. The fried bite-sized pieces of fresh pork belly ("ciccicoli") also enhanced the flavor of the dish. Of course, my mother was quick to point out that in pre World War II Italy the poor did not add "ciccioli," to the dish, only the well-to-do added "ciccioli" or "vendresca" ("Vendresca" is the Molisean dialect for panchetta -- but not salted panchetta, or the cold cut, panchetta! -- "vendresca" refers to fresh pork belly whose skin is still attached to it; this "vendresca" is then cut up and fried, these fried pieces are called "ciccicoli"). Apparently, when my mother was growing up in the 1930s in Casacalenda her own mother never added any "vendresc'" to the dish, making "past' e fagiol'" a vegetarian dish par excellence. However, at my paternal grandmother's house pork belly was often used (especially in the winter, right after the killing of the pig). Prior to World War II recipes varied from household to household depending on what ingredients they had at hand or what they could afford. In the 1970s high-end Italian restaurants started to serve "pasta e fagiole" and suddenly the dish became fashionable. It started to take on a life of its own -- became part of The good life so to speak. Master chefs began playing around with the original recipe, adding herbs, spices, whatever, turning the original poor man's dish into something to die for (and not starve on!).... One more thing -- according to my mother the beans used for "pasta e fagiole" were grown right alongside the wheat, so that the bean stalks actually attached themselves to the wheat. I suppose this must be true as my mother grew up on a farm in Molise, but personally I can't imagine how this was possible (but what would I know?). My mother also noted that the type of beans (cannelloni or white pea beans, I believe) grown for "pasta e fagiole" were generally dried and not served fresh (unlike "green beans" which were mostly served fresh). Obviously, other types of dried beans (e.g. borlotti) were also used to make this dish -- it all depended on what the individual household grew in their fields and/or what was locally available. The style of pasta used to make the dish in the 1930s also differed from region to region, town to town. In Casacalenda, Molise "pasta e fagiole" was made with home-made tagliatelle or store-bought tubetti (a kind of "elbow" pasta). Apparently, nowadays in Casacalenda, Molise "pasta e fagiole" is often made with "sagnetelle" a thinner noodle than tagliatelle. This may be because nowadays everyone uses pasta makers, making it easy to cut the pasta (Or they buy the pasta at the store). In any case, prior to World War II most cooks made tagliatelle as that was easier to make as the noodles were larger. Back then cooks either tossed the pasta with white sauce (olive oil, garlic, sweet dried red peppers and white beans) or tossed the pasta with red sauce (olive oil, onions, tomato sauce and white beans). The consistency of the sauce also varied from region to region, household to household, as some cooks added a lot of water to the sauce, while others did not. Nowadays, most modern-day chefs add fresh basil or parsley to the dish, along with hot chillies. These ingredients will definitely enhance the flavor. However, in pre World War II Italy subsistent farmers used as few flavorings as possible, so as to conserve the little they had in their storage rooms. Whatever they had obviously had to last till the next harvest, and that might be months away. Nonetheless, the well-to-do, including farmers with larger properties, had more than enough parsley, oregano, mint, rosemary and bay leaf on hand, so they made use of these herbs quite liberally in all their dishes.... Photo: Mary MElfi.

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