For a country that could fit inside the state of Nevada, Italy seems disproportionately affected by hyper-regionality, particularly when it comes to food. Take pasta e fagioli, for instance, which translates to “pasta and beans.” Easy enough, but travel the country from the top down, and you’ll find tons of variations on the dish.
I hesitate to call what I’ve made “pasta e fagioli,” even though it is exactly that: pasta and beans. There’s no meat involved, and no tomatoes, only tender noodles cooked in a near 50/50 mixture of water and bean broth (with some beans on top).
What’s so great about bean broth?
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Beans make their own soup. If you’ve ever cooked a pot of beans from scratch, you’ve probably noticed the cooking water turns thick and murky. When cooled, it gets a little jiggly, almost like a collagen-heavy chicken stock. There isn’t any collagen in beans (though they will help with collagen production), but there is a ton of starch, and starch is the key to creamy pasta water that emulsifies into a silky sauce. It also tastes pretty good—earthy, and a little sweet and nutty, with hints of your favorite bean.
How to cook pasta in bean broth
Start by draining any leftover beans out of the broth. Set the beans aside and add the bean broth to a medium high-walled stock pot. Pour your pasta of choice into the broth. (Small shapes work best.) Add enough water to just cover the pasta, season it with salt—how much will depend on how heavily you seasoned your bean broth—and add a few garlic cloves, parmesan rind, or anything else you wish to flavor your bean broth with. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions.
From here you have a couple of choices. You can eat the pasta and broth like a soup, and add some additional protein or vegetables (toss some cherry tomatoes in there while the pasta is cooking), or you can reserve a couple of cups (or all) of the broth, drain the pasta, and add it back to the pan with a few splashes of super starchy bean/pasta water. Add some butter, a tablespoon at a time, tossing vigorously with the pasta to create an emulsified sauce. Serve with any leftover beans, a healthy dusting of parm or pecorino, and fresh lemon zest.