I remember my parents working very hard to take care of me and put food on the table as a child, but working in retail and road construction just about paid the bills. Once a week, we would go to our favorite Italian restaurant in town and sit at a booth in the corner, away from the parties with tables full of pasta, wine, and appetizers. Our order would always be the same – 3 cups of water, a $9 Sicilian pizza, and a single bowl of Pasta Fagioli soup. I know we were a waiter’s nightmare, but this tradition allowed us to feel fancy. My parents took pride in being able to go out to eat like everyone else, but leave with a $15 bill and some food for leftovers.
My favorite part of the evening was getting the piping hot bowl of Pasta Fagioli delivered to our table (with three spoons), and dipping a piece of crusty bread into the rich and delicious soup. We’d talk about our week and draw pictures on the paper place settings that by this time were already covered with soup and marinara splatter. I would savor each noodle and bean in the soup, forcing myself to eat slowly and memorize the flavors, while minding the very hot pepper in the center of the soup.
This soup is an ode to my humble beginnings and the parents who worked so hard to raise and take care of me. I use tiny rice pasta shells in this recipe to make it gluten-free, but my favorite pasta to use for this soup would be ditalini pasta. To make the soup vegan, just use a vegetable stock or broth and omit any cheese. If you can have dairy, definitely top this soup with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano; you can even throw in a bit of rind into the soup as it’s cooking.
Pasta Fagioli Soup
- 2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
- ½ Large Onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 3 cloves Garlic, minced
- 2.5 cups Diced Tomatoes in Tomato Juice
- 1.5 cups Cannellini Beans (I used dried but you can use canned)
- 4 cups Chicken or Vegetable Broth
- 1 cup water or additional broth (if using dried beans)
- 2 tsp. Dried Oregano
- ½ tsp. Dried Basil
- 2 sprigs fresh Thyme
- ¼-½ tsp. Salt
- 1 tsp. Lemon Juice
- 1 cup small shell Pasta (I used Rice Pasta)
- 1 cup Dino Kale, thinly sliced
- ¼ tsp. Red Chili Flakes
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
*To do in advance – if using dried beans, soak the beans in filtered water overnight, and drain before using.
In a stainless pot or round dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the chopped onion and let them cook for 1-2 minutes, or until the onion starts to soften. Add the minced garlic and stir with a wooden spoon. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the diced tomatoes and sprigs of thyme and stir. Allow the diced tomatoes to come to a boil and then reduce the heat so the pot is cooking at a simmer. If you are using dried beans, add the beans now along with 2-3 cups of the broth and cover for about 30 minutes, then uncover and continue cooking for about 45 minutes, or until the beans are just shy of tender. If you are using canned beans, add the 2-3 cups of broth and cover the pot and allow to simmer for 30 minutes before adding the beans, then drain the beans and allow to cook uncovered for 15 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs and remove the pot from the heat.
Using an immersion blender or blender, roughly blend about ⅓ of the mixture and add back to the pot – doing this will help thicken the soup. Add the remaining cups of broth, and the herbs, lemon juice, and red chili flakes. Place the pot back on the burner over medium heat and allow the soup to come to a simmer and taste, adding salt as needed. Add the kale and allow it to cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the pasta to the pot and stir, then allow the pasta to cook for 5-6 minutes, or the directed amount on the packaging. I like my soups to be thicker and full of ingredients, but cooking the pasta in the broth tends to thicken the broth (especially rice pasta), so you may want or need to add another cup of water or broth. Stir everything together and add additional herbs or chili flakes, according to taste. Top with cheese if desired and serve with crusty bread.