Recipe: Pasta e Fagioli with Escarole, Guanciale, and Fresh Olio Santo
Beans simmering, greens sautéeing, these aromas remind me of several places, several kitchens, my grandparents’ house in Port Chester and also their wicker-and-Fiestaware- stuffed cottage in Hollywood, Florida, where a slew of relatives spent part of every winter. Those two homes always smelled of pasta fazool. My grandmother preferred the soupy kind, with wilted greens, often dandelions, floating around in it. It smelled of vegetation. It was what she wanted to cook in southern Florida’s humid heat, in that clammy, un-air-conditioned little house. I loved the dish.
My mother’s Long Island fazool had a different aroma. It filled the kitchen with the scent of pork, very nice to come home to after a long day screwing off at school. She braised pork chops with the beans, but then always pulled them out to serve as a second course, often with sautéed escarole or a chicory salad. Garlic and hot chili flakes were the undertones in all these preparations, no matter who in my family cooked them.
Our variations on beans, greens, and pasta came mainly from my father’s family, descendants of a depressed and frankly quite depressing little hill town on the boarder of Puglia and Campania, a place completely landlocked and devoid of any trees that I could see. Castelfranco in Miscano has a crumbling, dusty feel to it, thanks partly to the many earthquakes that have destroyed much of what I can imagine was once its ancient charm, including an 800-year-old white stone church that I’ve seen photos of. Wild greens, beans, and semolina pasta have always been staples of the place, often all three stewed together and eaten with fennel-scented taralli and cloudy, astringent white wine. The town smells like cooked bitter greens.
My Manhattan apartment often takes on many of those bean, greens, and pasta aromas. The pungent, raw smell of beans soaking in my kitchen can still surprise me even after so many years of cooking. I’ll pass by the pot of swollen cannellinis on the counter and catch that strange air of sour, damp earth. Then I’ll eat one, crunching down on it, thinking about what I might do with the rest of them in the morning. This time I decided on a blend of my mother’s and my grandmother’s fazool. Instead of pork chops I chose guanciale, for its richer, more gamy flavor, but like my grandmother, I added the greens in with the dish, not serving them separately. I could barely resist the classic, appealingly musty taste of dried chilies, which are almost always a component and such an olfactory memory, but because we’re at the end of summer and fresh chilies are still in season, I went with fresh heat. And when tasting the result, I was struck by how this one change, as delicious as it was, altered the character of the dish. It no longer tasted like a memory.
Pasta e Fagioli with Escarole, Guanciale, and Fresh Olio Santo
2 fresh red peperoncino peppers, with seeds, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight in cool water to cover
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
¼ pound guanciale, cut into small cubes
1 small onion, cut into small dice
2 small inner celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus a handful of celery leaves, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A few large sprigs of rosemary, leaves chopped
A splash of dry white wine
1 large head escarole, cut into small pieces and quickly blanched
¾ pound cavatelli
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, leaves lightly chopped
A chunk of firm Caciocavallo cheese (optional)
To make the olio santo: Place the minced fresh peperoncini in a small bowl. Add about ⅓ cup olive oil. Give it a good stir, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, while you cook the beans.
To cook the beans: Drain the cannellini beans, and place them in a large pot. Cover them with at least four inches pf cool water. Add the bay leaf, and turn the heat to high. When the water comes to a boil, lower the heat, and let them simmer gently, partially covered, until tender, about 1½ hours (it really depends on how hard your beans are, so start testing them after about 1 hour). Add more warm water if needed to keep the beans covered. When they’re tender but still holding their shape, season them with salt and a generous drizzle of olive oil, and turn off the heat, letting them cool down in their liquid. Drain them, saving about a cup of their cooking liquid.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the guanciale, and let it get crisp, about 3 minutes or so. Add the onion and celery, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the rosemary and the garlic, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their fragrances. Add half to about three quarters of the beans, depending on how beany you like the dish, and the blanched escarole, and sauté everything in the oil for about 3 or 4 minutes. Season with salt. Add the splash of white wine, and let it boil way. Add ½ cup of the bean cooking water, and let the sauce simmer. You’ll have some beans left over to use for a salad or a side dish (I figure that if I’m going to take the time to cook dried beans, I may as well make a good amount and use them for different dishes).
Drop the cavatelli into the water, and cook until al dente, draining well. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Add the cannellini sauce and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and toss. The texture should be a bit loose, so add more bean cooking liquid if needed. Drizzle a little (or a lot) of the olio santo on each serving. In Southern Italy, dishes that contain hot chilies are often served without cheese. I like my pasta e fagioli with a little cheese, but that’s up to you.