Recipe adapted from one found in a recent Cook’s Illustrated magazine, the traditional Italian dish Pasta e Piselli, like its better-known cousins pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci,combines peas with small pasta to form a hearty soup; all of which come together in one pot. Always a plus for a weeknight meal.
The pasta is cooked in a broth flavored with sautéed onion and savory pancetta, simultaneously infusing the pasta with savoriness and thickening the rich, silky broth. As well as using homemade chicken stock, we doubled the pancetta to four ounces, both of which provided more depth of flavor.
At the end of the cooking process, frozen petite peas (sweeter and less starchy than fresh peas), are added—in our case it was 2 cups as opposed to 1 1⁄2 cups because that was the contents of the bag. Immediately afterward, the pot is taken off the heat to preserve their tenderness and bright green color.
A sprinkle of Pecorino Romano contributes richness and tangy depth. Last-minute additions of minced herbs and extra-virgin olive oil punch up the aroma and flavors of the dish. You can substitute small pasta such as tubetti, ditali, elbow macaroni, or small shells for the ditalini, but do so by weight, not by volume.
TIP: For a vegetarian version, omit the pancetta, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth, and add an extra 2 tablespoons of grated cheese. Pecorino Romano adds a welcome sharpness. Cook’s Illustrated does not recommend substituting Parmesan in this recipe.
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, chopped fine
4 oz. pancetta, chopped fine
½ tsp. table salt
½ tsp. pepper
2½ cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
2½ cups water
7½ oz. (1½ cups) ditalini
1½ to 2 cups frozen petite peas
⅓ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for serving
2 Tbsp. minced fresh mint
Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, pancetta, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, 7 to 10 minutes.
Add broth and water and bring to boil over high heat. Stir in pasta and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid returns to boil. Reduce heat to maintain simmer; cover; and cook until pasta is al dente, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in peas and remove saucepan from heat. Stir in parsley, Pecorino, and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, drizzling with extra oil and passing extra Pecorino separately.
Growing up in the Midwest, Pasta e Fagioli wasn’t anywhere on my culinary radar. When I moved East decades ago, I quickly learned it was quite common in this region of the country. Minestrone, is a similar type of soup but the main difference between it and pasta e fagioli is the variety of vegetables in minestrone. Fagioli (pronounced fazool) is mainly pasta and beans in a broth, although this version includes kale and herbs among other plant additives.
A traditional Italian soup, it started as a peasant dish, being composed of inexpensive ingredients.
The key to a soup with fully developed savory flavor starts with the soffritto—a mix of aromatic vegetables that are slowly cooked in the first stage of cooking. Take your time sweating down the vegetables until they are completely softened before letting them take on any color. You’ll be surprised by how much volume they lose and how much liquid they release and by how much unquantifiable richness they lend to the final dish, which is nothing more than a combination of humble ingredients.
To up the flavor quota, Russ used two smoked ham hocks and 1 quart of homemade ham stock and included fresh rosemary and thyme, all of which are noted in the list of ingredients below. This recipe is doubled from the original Bon Appétit version, so you can easily cut it in half if desired. Be prepared that this soup is time consuming, so you’ll want to schedule a long lazy afternoon to make it.
1 lb. dried medium white beans (such as cannellini), soaked overnight if possible*
8 carrots, scrubbed, coarsely chopped
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise, coarsely chopped
12 garlic cloves
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzlingFreshly ground black pepper
2 smoked ham hocks
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 bunches Tuscan kale, ribs and stems removed, leaves torn
4 Parmesan rinds (optional)
4 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
3-3 1/2 qts. water and/or ham broth
1 lb. small pasta (such as ditalini)
Finely grated Parmesan, crushed red pepper flakes, and crusty bread (for serving)
*If you haven’t soaked the beans, do a power soak: Place beans in a large pot, cover with water by 1″, and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil, remove pot from heat, stir in a palmful of salt, cover pot, and let beans sit 1 hour.
Pulse carrots, leek, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Heat ⅓ cup oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium. Add chopped vegetables, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until vegetables start to sweat out some of their liquid, about 4 minutes. The goal at this stage is to slow cook the soffritto until the vegetables are very soft but have not taken on any color.
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pot, and cook, stirring every 5 minutes or so and reducing heat if mixture starts to brown, until vegetables are softened and juicy, about 15 minutes.
Add ham hock and cook, uncovered, stirring and scraping bottom of pot every 5 minutes, until soffritto is starting to brown in places and has lost at least half of its volume, about 10 minutes more.
Add beans and their soaking liquid, tomatoes, and kale; season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then add Parmesan rinds (if using) and bay leaves. Reduce heat to medium-low and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook soup with lid askew, adding water (or stock, if you have it) as needed to keep beans submerged by 1″, until beans are very tender, 1–3 hours, depending on size and age of beans.
Fish out and discard Parmesan rinds. Remove ham hock and use a fork to pull meat off the bone. Return meat to soup; discard bone and any large pieces of fat.
Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling well-salted water, stirring occasionally, until very al dente, about 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain pasta and add to soup, then taste and season with more salt and pepper if needed. (Do not try to skip a step by cooking the pasta in the soup. The noodles will absorb all the available liquid and the liquid will be thick and gummy.)
Divide soup among bowls. Top with Parmesan, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Serve with bread for dunking if desired.