October 28, 2013

Italian Table Talk: A Family Recipe for Minestra e Fagioli


Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it's about my dad's tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch; or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.

From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn't get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn't get to experience.
The thread between me and these stories is my mum. She nurses dear memories of her childhood - sugarcoated, perhaps? Our mind is good at deleting the bad and keeping the good, and after all, why shouldn't it? - living with her enlarged family in a farm in rural Veneto. She talks a lot about her grandmother Maria, her mum's mum, who was the official cook in the house, and a really skilled one. I never met her, but I wish I had the chance to eat some of her food at least once -perhaps in the winter, when temperatures are more suitable to the hearty cooking she was inclined to. My mum still dreams about the rich and flavoursome Sunday meals she would cook: primi piatti such as risotto with chicken gizzards, or bigoi with rabbit ragù, and secondi with roasted poultry or, when in season, pork cuts.

Maria wasn't known for being timid with condiments, or spare with portions. During the week, when the meal consisted mainly of minestra de fasoi (bean and pasta soup), and polenta, for my family as for any other peasant family in the area, she was heard since the early morning making the battuto with slices of cured lardo and parsley. Old knife in hand, perhaps sharpened once every blue moon by the arrotino, and an even older wood board. Tac tac tac. Until the whole lot of salt-cured lardo had become a cream, and the parsley had mingled within the fat into a bright green puree.


Great-grandma Maria was taking care of the cooking so my grandma didn't have to. Yet, after Maria's death, grandma inherited the title of head chef of the house. According to mum, she was a good cook, too, and she had moments when she would make home-made tagliatelle on a whim quite frequently. All in all, she had learnt all the basics - the roasts, the sauces, the pastas - to make the family happy. On top of that, according to my dad, she knew how to make a fantastic lasagna, with the perfect besciamella-to-ragù ratio. I also heard she could make a mean zuppa inglese, with layers of cookies alternated with Marsala-scented custard and chocolate pudding.

I have no memories of grandma's cooking. Not of the stews, or the ragù, or the zuppa inglese. I got to know all this through the recollections of someone else. I am sure I had the chance to eat some of her food on a Christmas or New Year's Day of many years ago, but I was too young to pay attention, or even remember. Unfortunately, no written traces remain of these recipes, no charmingly old and suty hand-written recipe notbooks, and grandma is no longer able to pass them down to us. From a point in her life onwards, she have become more and more forgetful every day. With her memory goes a big piece of ours, too, and of our culinary culture, which was hers and her mother's before her. My mum, growing up during the post-war boom, was little interested in cooking and more interested in eating and living her life. She can guess and remember some, but the gestures, the amounts, the careful steps than can bring a recipe to life - these things are all lost.


Luckily, the most representative dish in my family, including my father's side (with little alterations, I suppose), doesn't need much of a recipe. As people made and ate it on a daily basis more or less in the same way, minestra de fasoi is a familiar dish, whose preparation they must have assisted to at least once in their life. The variations on the basic recipe were few: fresh beans in the summer and early fall, dried the rest of the year; rice or ditali, or broken bigoi as 'starch'; perhaps some onion or garlic in the battuto; some ribs or bones could make it into the stock after the winter pig butchering was over.

Far from being a daily recurrence in my life - things have changed quite a bit in the meantime - minestra de fasoi (minestra e fagioli or pasta e fagioli, in Italian) has always been something my parents have enjoyed. To me, it seemed odd to get so excited about a soup with beans and pasta, but to them, it must have always been such a warming, nostalgic flavour... Something they can deeply appreciate only now that is not forced onto them every single day.

When looking for a recipe for this month's Italian Table Talk, dedicated to family recipes, I had hardly any doubt about which dish I wanted to make - minestra de fasoi was an easy choice indeed. Humble, if you like, but very satisfying, nourishing, warming and comforting. Cheap, as well. Perfect for sharing. Before heading to the recipe, let me introduce you to the rest of the feast: Emiko is cooking a special recipe for ragù di coniglio for seasoning pasta- which I am sure would make up for the lost recipe of my family's rabbit ragù; Jasmine will share the story behind her grandma's spezzatino; and Giulia will end the meal with a note of sweetness and her grandma's bigné.



Minestra de Fasoi (Bean and Pasta Soup)
Serves 4 
2 cups of dried borlotti beans, soaked overnight
1 tbsp olive oil
1 4mm-thick slice of cured lardo, about 50g
handful of fresh flat parsley, washed
1 small shallot
2 L vegetable stock, preferably home made with carrot, onion and celery
1/2 cup ditalini (short tubes)
fine grain sea salt and black pepper, to taste


 Rinse the beans under cold running water. Transfer into a large pot with plenty of water (twice the volume of the beans at least) and bring to the boil. Cook until al dente, drain and set aside.
Using a sharp chef knife, start mincing the lardo, until you get a sort of puree. Chop the parsley very finely and then incorporate it into the cream lardo. Do the same with the shallot. You want to end up with almost a pesto of parsley, lardo and shallot.
Bring the stock to the boil and keep it hot over low heat. In a large, separate pot, heat the olive oil, then add the pesto and fry until the lardo has melted and the shallot is translucent. Add 2/3 of the beans, stir using a wooden spoon so that the fat coats the beans. Fry for two-three minutes. Pour enough stock over the beans so that they are completely covered. Simmer for ten minutes or so.
Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender. Put back over medium heat, add the rest of the beans and the pasta. Add more stock if needed - you want a dense but still 'soupy' texture. Cook for ten minutes, until the pasta is done. Finally, taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. Serve.



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20 comments:

  1. A classic that I've been meaning to make for a while now too. So essential and I think a wonderful example of the power of nostalgia. Like all the ITT posts, I loved reading this. The description of your mum being the thread in knowing the dishes of your grandmother sounds so much like Marco's mum too - she was not the skilled cook her mother was but she's the only link to those recipes now. I'd love to hear the other family tales you introduced at the beginning - they all sound like stories that need to be told!

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    1. Who knows, maybe these stories will come next, ha.
      My mum surely discovered cooking at a late age, when it felt less like an oppressing duty two times a day and more like a moment to share with the family - and I am really thankful she did. :)

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  2. A beautifully written piece about one of my favourite things to eat. Emiko's rabbit after, and it would be a near perfect meal for me. I have never made M de Fagioli with a lard/parsley battuto though, but I am going to try, tomorrow I think. Lovely but real pictures.

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    1. Oh thank you Rachel! It was a discovery for me as well, it is actually the first time I tried myself and found it absolutely superb - it really gives some depth to the soup. Let me know how you liked it.

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  3. I'll take the first coming gust of wind and I'll join you.
    Those slices of lardo, oh my those slices..
    Keep sunny and eat this pasta, lol.

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    1. The lardo is the key ingredient here for sure :) I bought enough to make it every time the wind blows...

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    1. For sure, the recipe can be doubled and multiplied to feed an army - usually everybody likes it.

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  5. This is what you should do in your life, telling stories where the food is the core, with these gentle words and stunning pictures.
    This said, I can imagine the sound of the battuto, the same sound I can still hear coming from my grandma's open kitchen window. A different battuto, made of carrots, celery and onion, but still proudly made by hand with a mezzaluna!

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    1. I wish I could, but I am so unreliable in my writing that I would be starving in a couple weeks, ha. I also wish I was able to hear Maria doing the battuto, the way my mum describes it is mesmerizing, and she remebers it with so much nostalgia...Truly beautiful.

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    2. Valeria e Juls tesori miei so che siete internazionali ma almeno tra di voi non dimenticate l'italiano e pensate a noi povere ignoranti.... :-)
      Ps: siete bravissime!!

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    3. Marcella :) sai che hai ragione, l'abbiamo notato anche noi che ogni tanto ci commentiamo a vicenda in inglese, e fa proprio strano, eppure! Grazie di cuore per ricordarcelo <3

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  6. What a sweet sweet post Valeria! Your writing is beautiful. I don't think it's odd to get excited by beans and pasta, I think it's so much more than that- the memories, the comfort, the people you're eating/ cooking with.. I get excited by CABBAGE. I'll be sure to try this one soon- sounds like some gorgeous flavours, simple yes, but hearty and heartwarming.

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    1. You surely can turn the humble cabbage into something truly special! :)
      Thank you Shu!

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  7. Love it, too, when family get together to enjoy a meal. It's always a delight to spend even hours cooking for your loved ones. And yes, I do get excited by pasta as well, lol! Will definitely try this for sure.

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    1. Thank you Marian - this recipe is surely for sharing :) Let me know how you liked it!

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  8. Beautiful story Val, and how bloody tasty looks that! I love everything with beans in it so I will give this one a go very soon!

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    1. Thank you Regula! Let me know how you liked it! :)

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  9. What a very beautiful and heartfelt article. You photographs are so lovely, and your minestra looks so inviting. A dish like this was a standard in my home as I was growing up. Thank you for awakening lots of wonderful and warm memories.

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    1. Thank you so much Adri - I am glad that this soup is warming up tummies and harts at once.

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