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Home » Practicing the basics: pasta e fagioli

Practicing the basics: pasta e fagioli

Pasta e fagioli translates to “pasta and beans,” and there is truth in advertising with this recipe. It’s a very filling, very healthy, very satisfying one-dish meal that is nearly irresistible on a cold winter day (it’s pretty great the rest of the year too).

The recipe has essentially three steps:

  1. Make a vegetable-bean soup.
  2. Cook some pasta in it.
  3. Mix in some spinach.

The basic recipe has nothing fancy going on, though once you have made it a couple of times and feel comfortable with it, there are plenty of ways to customize it to create your own family recipe.

Suggested pre-reading:

Makes about 4 servings, depending on portion size. Time required: 45 minutes.


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 large stalk celery, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, not drained
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup (or tomato paste)
  • 1 can (15.5 oz) white beans (Great Northern or Cannellini)
  • ½ pound pasta – spaghetti, penne, elbow macaroni, seashell, etc. If spaghetti, break into 3-inch pieces
  • 1 small bag (about 5 oz.) baby spinach leaves

1. In a stock pot or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, salt and pepper. Saute until the the vegetables are soft and the onion is slightly transparent. You hopefully recognize by now that this is the classic “saute some aromatic vegetables” step for most soups and sauces.

2. Add the bay leaf, chicken stock, tomatoes with juice, ketchup and beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. This is the heart of making a vegetable-bean soup.

3. Add the pasta and simmer for 10 minutes or until pasta is cooked. The awesome result of cooking the pasta in the soup is that the starch that comes off the pasta will thicken the soup.

4. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Remove from heat.

5. Stir in the spinach. Spinach, along with many leafy herbs, is intolerant of heat; it wilts instantly and falls apart quickly when cooked. We add the spinach right at the end, after all the cooking is done, so that it wilts but doesn’t completely dissolve.

6. Season to taste, and serve.

Suggestions for modifications or substitutions:

  • This recipe violates a traditional rule for Italian cooking: don’t use onion and garlic in the same dish. My investigation of several pasta e fagioli recipes leads me to believe that there is no consensus, at least for this dish: they are pretty evenly split on whether to include both. If you’re a purist, feel free to drop the garlic (the onion is not negotiable). I’ve tried it both ways and I like it better with the garlic, but do what makes you happy.
  • If you want to make it 100% vegetarian, substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock. Depending on the vegetable stock you use, you may need to adjust the seasonings.
  • You can go the other direction as well and throw in some sausage. If you’re not using pre-cooked sausage, I would recommend browning it in the pot (with a bit of the oil) before you saute the vegetables, setting it aside, and then adding it back in with the pasta.
  • I think this recipe works very well with whole-wheat penne pasta; but keep in mind that different pastas have different cooking times. So be prepared to stretch the 10-minute cooking time if needed, especially for thicker pastas. At the end of the day, the ultimate test is not a specific amount of time, but whether the pasta is cooked through to your desired texture.
  • If you want to give it a bit of extra tang, mix in 1/8 cup of grated parmesan cheese while the pasta is cooking.
  • You’ll notice it doesn’t call for any Italian herbs, a noticeable omission for a classic Italian recipe. You can try adding some, either at the “soup” stage or when seasoning to taste at the end. But try the recipe without adding herbs first.

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