Just the smell of soup can alter your mood to happiness immediately. That may be why the Italian word for soup, zuppa, rolls off your tongue so easily.
It is a rare human being who can walk into a room where a pot of soup is cooking and not be transported by the aroma. For many of us, smell is the sense of the imagination and of love. Our instincts, intuitions and memory are all triggered by our sense of smell.
Soups, perhaps more than any other food, have an uncanny effect on our mood and memory. What is it about soups that enable them to have this almost universal effect of rekindling memories of childhood, of feeling safe and taken care of? Perhaps it is the length of time it takes for a soup to cook, or the anticipation of the ensuing comfort of eating something that requires so little effort on our parts. Or perhaps because soup recipes are so very particular to every family—a unique blend of vegetables, spices, methods and motions going back generations.
Whatever the reason, when we are in need of comfort, reassurance or simply pleasure, most of us have a particular soup we crave.
For a New Orleanian, it might be a chicken gumbo soup; for a New Englander, maybe a reassuring clam chowder. But for a Venetian, it’s got to be Pasta e Fagioli—a heartwarming bean soup with just the right amount of pasta. It’s not hard to imagine how a soup like this might become inextricably entwined with memories of a childhood in Venice. Imagine coming home on a foggy winter evening, the dampness of the air chilling you from head to toe, the familiar odor of the canal’s perpetual stew mingling with the cold. But suddenly, you catch a whiff of a delicious aroma in the street. The closer you get to your door, the surer you are that it’s your mother’s soup, and not your neighbor’s. When at last the warm walls of your home greet you, with barely a “ciao” to your mother, you make a beeline to the stove for final confirmation: indeed your favorite soup is simmering.
But it’s not only Venetians who love this soup. Pasta e Fagioli, with some variations, exists in every region of Italy and it’s probably safe to say that every single household has its own variation.
Italians, whether the 60 million who live in Italy, or the millions living abroad, are very attached to the origins of their culinary traditions. What is now called cucina povera is loosely translated as “humble food”—meaning simple cuisine made from the most basic grains and produce. This cuisine has been shown to meet the highest nutritional standards set by scientists, scholars and dietitians hailing the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
But long before the research and trends of the last decades, Italian farm families living at a subsistence level, who couldn’t afford to put any meat on their tables, had a formidable alternative with beans, which are up to 25% protein (in their dried form), and loaded with calcium, iron and fiber. Easy to cook and delicious, the bean is a meal in itself. Italians are not alone in their passion for beans; beans are appreciated all over the world, particularly in areas where cost is an important factor. In the Southwest regions of the US, as well as throughout Central and South America, the diet is based heavily on beans (and rice) and has been for centuries. The population of Europe in the 10th century was able to survive numerous famines and pandemics thanks to the legumes, such as lentils, peas, fava beans and chickpeas. Though, borlotti beans (sometimes referred to in the US as cranberry beans) that we know today, and which is the bean used in Pasta e Fagioli and other dishes, was unknown in Europe before the 16th century.
In Italy, it could be argued that the explorations of North America and the Spanish conquests in South America are most appreciated for the foods that were “discovered” there and brought back to the Old World—introducing Europe to not only beans, but also tomatoes, potatoes and delicacies like chocolate. So, ironically, many of the culinary delights we have come to associate so strongly with Italy, such as Pasta al Pomodoro, Pasta e Fagioli and Cioccolata Calda, only came into existence after contact with the Americas.
Pasta for lunch and soup for dinner has been the basic diet for a child in Italy for at least a century. During and after the war years, Italian parents would prepare soup for their kids for dinner because they knew it was healthy and would fill the stomachs of their notoriously mai fermi (never still) little ones, and because soups have always been thankfully inexpensive. But children are often picky—suspicious of unfamiliar vegetables in their minestroni, leery even of leeks and potatoes. For this reason, Italian mothers will often purée their soups for their children. Yet, almost always, kids are more keen on pasta dishes than soups. And so comes the dictum that some Italian parents say when a child whines about the soup they are served for dinner: “O ‘sta minestra o giù dalla finestra”—which translates (without the rhyme, sadly). “It’s either this soup or you’re out the window.” Needless to say, in Venice, this could be a terrifying prospect.
Most soup lovers will tell you, that with few exceptions, no soup in a restaurant can ever be as good as a homemade soup. Certain soups are primarily associated with particular provinces or cities. For example, Pasta e Fagioli is associated with Venice, Rome and Naples. In Central and Southern Italy, you are most likely to find Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpea soup). Ribollita, which literally means “reboiled”, is an elaborate Florentine and Tuscan specialty with many variations usually consisting mainly of beans, kale, tomatoes and bread. Stracciatella is a typical Roman soup made essentially with beef stock, eggs, and parmigiano. While Minestrone is often linked with Milan, it is perhaps the most widely served soup in Italy and known worldwide.
Pasta e Fagioli is a great winter soup, whether you live in Venice or Vermont, San Francisco or Florence. The soup can be made with fresh, dried or canned beans without sacrificing taste. Numerous variations are possible – for example, in the recipe below, we offer a vegetarian version, but invite meat eaters to roast Italian sausages with the vegetables, if so desired. As always in home cuisine, each family or individual will adapt the ingredients and preparation to suit their own tastes and needs.
A word about the bean, il fagiolo. In Venice, as almost everywhere in Italy, the lamon bean, which is a large-size borlotti bean, is considered the best for this soup. In Tuscany, they love cannellini beans, even for this soup. But today many of the varieties of beans used in Italy are actually imported from the US – so it truly does make just as much sense to cook Pasta e Fagioli in Venice, California as it does in Venice, Italy.
Fresh borlotti beans are hard to find in the US even in season, though green markets sometimes have them. Though fresh beans are great, they can be expensive, and few people have the time and patience to shell them. But the good news is that you can make an excellent Pasta e Fagioli using dried or canned borlotti beans which are always available, just about anywhere.
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