Nearly 40 years on, I still have an all-too-clear memory of spending Saturday mornings down in St. Ann’s Park playing football (or worse still standing around waiting to play). Imagine a February morning, the wide-open space with no shelter, wind howling and icy rain falling horizontally and nothing but a football jersey (evidently designed for use in Ghana) to keep you warm. I’m sure you all know the feeling.
But then came the best part and as soon as the match was over, I’d race back home where the mammy always had a hot bath waiting for me. Just soaking there in the bath you could feel the warmth seeping into every single pore, injecting itself down to the bone, leaving you in the sort of blissful state that in later years I would only get after a five-course meal and a couple of armagnacs in a decent French restaurant, or one or two other things which it’s probably best not to write about in a food blog.
Well, today’s recipe is absolutely perfect for those times when you’ve been for a run up and down Djouce, shovelling snow from your drive or taking your dogs for a stroll along Tramore strand in the middle of a force 9 gale. But unlike the mammy’s hot bath, this one works from the inside out. It’s my Minestra di fagioli. This is translatable as “bean soup”, but if I call it that, everyone will just reply “I don’t care what it’s been, what is it now, ho ho ho?”. So Minestra di fagioli it is (pronounced “fah-JOE-li”). You get to learn Italian, and I get not to hear the snickers.
First of all there are endless varieties of minestra (and I mean that – the addition or omission of one ingredient can change the whole thing completely!) and you can experiment to your heart’s delight. Basically they are produced by gently frying the flavourings for your minestra (chopped garlic, onions, carrots, celery, herbs, etc.), then adding stock or water, then the “star” of your minestra (in this case beans, but things like chickpeas work a treat too) and finally pasta in some small format like ditali, ditalini, farfalline, quadrettini or stortini. You could also try farro (emmer wheat) or pearl barley instead of pasta. Neither will kill you and looking for them could keep you occupied for the next fortnight.
Probably the hardest thing about this dish is deciding whether or not to use tinned beans (the result will be lovely) or dried beans (the result will be totally indescribable). I’m presuming you won’t be able to access fresh beans, which would be the absolute ne plus ultra altogether. You also need to decide which beans to use. The types I use for this recipe are cannellini and borlotti beans, but you can substitute both or either of these with butter beans, green flageolet beans, black-eye beans, kidney beans or black beans. You should be able to find a reasonably large variety of tinned beans at any half-decent supermarket… you’ll have to hunt down the dried ones for yourself.
If you are going to use the dried variety, remember you’ll need to give them a cold bath first. It’s not that they’ve been naughty or that they’re dirty (though they probably are), it’s just that they’re dry. They’re mummified. There isn’t a drop of moisture in them. A bit like granny’s hands. You need to bring them back to life again, which means putting them in a bath of cold water – and lots of it… they have a nasty habit of growing – for at least 8 hours (10 or 12 is better). Most packets will have instructions on them but if not, after you’ve soaked them, rinse them and then pop them into a large pot with plenty of water (they keep growing!!) and no salt, bring them to a boil and let them simmer away merrily for an hour. After an hour, taste one. If it’s still a bit too crunchy, give them another half hour. Finally drain. They’re now full of life (I was going to say full of beans) and ready for use as described below.
So here we go with Minestra con fagioli. Stick the kids in an ice bucket and tell them to prepare for a thorough warming!
Ingredients for 4:
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 4 thin slices of onion
- 2 medium carrots
- celery, half a stick (with leaves)
- herbs (chop and treble the amount if using fresh): 1 tsp rosemary; ½ tsp sage; ½ tsp basil; ½ tsp parsley (you can also use thyme, chives and tarragon for variety)
- black pepper, freshly ground
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 200g chopped or sieved tomatoes (passata)
- 1½ litres stock or water
- 200g cooked cannellini beans
- 200g cooked borlotti beans
- 200g ditali rigati
Chop the onion slices finely. Cut the carrots in half or thirds and cut each half or third lengthwise. Finely chop 2 or 3 of the resulting sticks. Do the same now with the celery – ending up with several chunky sticks and a bit of finely chopped celery. If you have the celery leaves, mince them (them… not your fingers!). Now bung all of the above into a large pot together with the garlic, herbs and 4 or 5 turns of a pepper mill. Then add the olive oil, turn on the heat and stir the contents so as to coat them all with the oil. Bring to bubbling point, reduce heat to a minimum and cover. Give it a stir every couple of minutes. Your kitchen should now be filled with an incredible aroma. If it’s not, you’ve forgotten to switch on the heat under the pot.
After about 5 minutes, when the vegetables are profusely sweating and have just started to soften, add your tomatoes. Stir heartily, bring to the boil again, reduce heat, cover and pop off for a cigarette. This time you can leave it to bubble away gently for about 10 minutes. You can see it’s having fun, so why disturb it? But when the 10 minutes are up you can boldly march in and announce “Enough is enough, sir!” while throwing the jugful of stock or water over the whole proceedings. Now you’ll have to go back to the “bring-it-to-the-boil-and-reduce-heat” routine. By the way, it helps if your stock or water has previously been brought to boiling point (now he tells me!).
Once the water has come to a boil, throw in the beans and add 2 or 3 good pinches of salt. Let this simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Cigarette break!
Now it’s the turn of the pasta, so off with the lid, in with the pasta and cook for as long as is indicated on the packet (anything from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the format you use). Make sure the soup never goes off the boil and stir regularly, though not constantly, to stop the pasta sticking to the bottom of the pot like a limpet on the rocks at the North Pier in Howth. This is not the time to go off for a cigarette, but you can quite happily set the table or remove the cat from the diswasher.
Finally, taste your soup to see if it needs more salt (it probably will) and once you switch off the heat, allow it to settle for about 5-10 minutes before serving (just enough timeto finish setting the table, uncork the wine and round up the diners).
For that extra special touch, sprinkle some parmigiano reggiano over the soup once you’ve doled it into your bowls.
Winos will appreciate a light, zappy red wine with this… Something Umbrian like a Torgiano, one of the lesser Tuscan wines, even a Valpolicella (for anyone over 45, don’t let the name put you off!).