Monday, May 18, 2020

American Melting Pot: Pasta e Fagioli

Big Night, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub

One of the things that this pandemic quarantine has taught me is how much food waste we had become accustomed to and not noticed in our day to day rush to get from one sports practice and school event to another.  Being forced to slow down our perpetual motion lifestyle at the same time we are trying to minimize our trips out to the store has resulted in some creative recipe overhauls.

During the school year, our slow cooker gets a lot of use.  For ease, you can't beat being able to toss ingredients in the slow cooker first thing in the morning, rush out the door to work, run to a sports practice, and walk in the door to a fully cooked, delicious meal.  It's a lifesaver for me, and something I've been using with a lot of success for years -- all the way back to my hectic legal trial practice days, when we likely would not have eaten anything other than drive-thru crapola otherwise.

Last night, after doing a short inventory of what we had in the produce drawers in our fridge, I realized we had several bits and pieces that needed to be used up before we lost them.  Let's play pandemic fridge remnant bingo, shall we?

Since we've been shopping as infrequently as possible to minimize contacts, I find that once every couple of weeks we have to do an inventory to round up the assorted random bits and pieces, and then I play a game called "what in the world can I make with this?"  Sometimes, I just type in ingredients in the New York Times cooking website and see if I find something that sounds yummy, but more often than not I'm rummaging around my cookbook collection or trying to get creative in a less scary version of Pandemic Chopped.

Usually, it means I'm tossing together some sort of soup or stew, where I can get my vegetable hating family to eat their veggies and love every minute of it.  My people will eat anything that includes either Tex-Mex spices or Italian flavors, and you'd be amazed how many veggies you can cram in a single soup or stew with the right amount of crushed tomatoes poured in to hide them.

Seriously.  Not kidding.

Today's entry in the America's Melting Pot recipes is a hybrid of two wonderful recipes in one of my favorite all-time cookbooks:  Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

This cookbook changed my life.  No lie.

It's one of the first cookbooks I ever purchased.  The recipe for Roast Chicken with Lemons (p. 327), lemons which perfume the meat lightly with the light and delicious scent of fresh lemon, all the while basting the meat and keeping it moist as the oil and seasoning rubbed skin crisps and turns golden in the heat of the oven.  Divine.

The soup recipes in this book are what have been life changing in terms of cooking technique learned for me.  The way she layers flavors by strategically adding in vegetables to caramelize and brown in extra virgin olive oil, alternating with meat sautéed for very particular purposes in terms of depth of flavor and smoky deliciousness.

Her recipes for Pasta e Fagioli (p. 102) and Minestrone alla Romagnola (p. 84) are the basis for today's throw together soup in my slow cooker.

If I want the exact taste of Marcella Hazan's soups, I follow the recipe exactly, and it is always delicious.  Always.  However, during a pandemic, sometimes you have to make do a bit more with what you happen to have in your fridge and not being able to run out to the store at the drop of a hat.  So it is with Marcella Hazan's recipes in the back of my mind, and a random assortment of applicable ingredients in my pantry, that this is what is bubbling away happily in my crockpot at the moment.  Some variation of this soup is a regular entry on our family table, because it is delicious, veggie packed, and even with the addition of spicy Italian sausage and a bit of hamburger, still very healthy given the fiber and antioxidants that pack the broth.

Hopefully, it will become a favorite in your house, too.  If you have a slow cooker, it can become a seriously easy favorite that gives you a day free from cooking once you get things started.  What's not to love about that?

Here's what I used today, but know that an endless variation on veggies, beans, meat or no meat -- it's like a make your own story every time you make the soup, depending on what you have on hand.

Slow Cooker Pasta e Fagioli
1 lg. sweet onion, diced fine
4 stalks celery, diced fine
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. lean grass-fed hamburger
3 hot Italian sausage links
1 pkg. angel hair shredded cabbage (finely shredded)
1/2 pkg. shredded carrots
2 medium zucchini, diced small
1 lg. can petite diced tomatoes
1 can light red kidney beans, drained
1 can cannellini beans, drained
1 sm. can tomato paste
32 oz. container beef stock
1 Tbsp. dried Italian seasoning (I use Penzey's Tuscan Sunset seasoning)
1 tsp. dried oregano
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. granulated onion powder
1/4 tsp. granulated garlic powder
salt and pepper, to taste

Start with onion and celery in the bottom of your slow cooker, along with the olive oil.  Let this cook on HIGH for several minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.  Add hamburger and allow it to brown with the veggies for about a half hour, breaking up the meat into smaller pieces as it browns.  (During the school year, I'll put all of this in the crockpot first thing when I get up, and then go take my shower.  When I get ready, I come downstairs, break up the meat and then add the rest of the ingredients and head out to work.)

Once the hamburger has browned, I add all the rest of the ingredients listed -- just pour everything into the slow cooker and give it a good stir.  I leave the sausage links in one piece and let them cook in the soup all day.  I cook this on LOW for 8 hours or so, until the meat is thoroughly cooked through and the veggies are tender.  Your house will smell like heaven the entire time this is cooking, and your family will ask you frequently, "Is that ready to eat yet?"

At some point in the next hour or so, I may wander out to our little kitchen garden and harvest a few leaves of dinosaur kale to chop up and add to the mix, and there may be a few leftover green beans from last night's meat loaf that may get chopped and added in as well.  It's a seriously easy and flexible recipe.

When we get closer to serving time, I pull the sausages out, let them cool a bit so I don't burn my fingers, and then cut into bite-sized pieces.  While the sausages are cooling, I generally taste the broth and adjust seasonings if needed -- salt, pepper, maybe a beef boullion cube or two if it needs more depth of flavor, whatever is needed gets added at this point.  Then, I usually slice the cooled sausages in rounds, and then quarter those slices so we get sausage tidbits in every bite.  Once the sausage is chopped, it goes back in the soup, and it gets a good stir to blend the sausage back in before cooking another half hour or so to fully blend flavors.  At this point, I check the amount of liquid and add a little more water if it is needed so that there s plenty of broth.

If you have the rind from some fresh parmesan cheese, that is fantastic to toss in the soup to flavor it. I learned from Marcella Hazan that she saves these hard rinds in a bag in her freezer to use in her soups, and I've been doing that ever since.  The smoky, umami awesomeness that parmesan adds is wonderful.

One thing that I do differently is to cook my pasta separately.  I'll use ditalini or macaroni -- whatever we have in the pantry that is tubular to soak up the soup broth, even sometimes cheese tortellini if we're in the mood for more cheesy goodness.  We just cook it according to package directions to al dente, and then combine the soup and pasta together with a hefty sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top in our individual serving bowls.  By cooking the pasta separate from the soup, I can control that it only goes to al dente and doesn't become an overcooked mush in the soup pot, which also allows us to store them separately in the fridge and maintain the pasta's integrity through a couple of days of leftover goodness.

This is the kind of soup that always tastes better the second day.


Molly said...

I have a new, never used yet, Instant Pot. Any idea what adjustments I need to make to do this in an Instant Pot. I think they are similar except cooking is faster (I *think*).

Christy Hardin Smith said...

Molly, I don't know about using the pressure cooker function for the Instant Pot on this -- I'm not great with conversions for the pressure cooker, and I usually rely on already done recipes for ours, honestly. But the cooker/sauteeing part would be great to brown the meat and onions/celery, and then slow cook the rest of the ingredients just like you would in a crockpot.