Friday, March 2, 2012

Peasant Food (A.K.A. Health Food)

The days of believing that a well rounded meal consists of meat, potatoes and a vegetable occupying equal portions of the dinner plate are over. Current scientific evidence keeps reinforcing the new belief that vegetables, fruits and grains should be the predominant sources of nutrition, with lean meats and fish relegated to a supporting role in our diets. We keep reading about the health benefits of the"Mediterranean" diet. As a first generation American born child of Italian immigrant parents, this is a no-brainer! These are the foods I grew up eating, the foods that say home to me, the foods I love. Of course, back when my parents were raising a young family, they were thinking more about how to feed a family of four well on a single salary and less about our future cardiovascular health, but the end result is the same. And in today's economic environment, inexpensive food that is also healthy is the holy grail. Below I offer a recipe which to me epitomizes "peasant food"--Pasta Fagiole.

As with many of my recipes, the variations are endless. Consider it a road map, not a prescription! Any variety of beans that you find tasty will work here (white beans, kidney, pinto, roman, etc.), as will any green veggie that looks good in the market that day (I've used escarole, kale, or, as I explain below, even napa cabbage). You can vary the starch, using whole wheat pasta for a nutritional boost, or even (ignoring the "pasta" part of the name) by substituting brown rice or barley instead. If you absolutely can't stand a totally meatless dish, feel free to sauté up a quarter pound of sausage separately (so you can drain off the fat) or some bits of lean ham and add to the pot just after the carrots, celery, onion and garlic are sautéed. Personally, I take my Fagiole straight meat, just beans, veggies, pasta and a few seasonings. However you vary it, be sure to finish the dish by drizzling a tablespoon or so of best quality extra virgin olive oil over each serving immediately before presentation. The fruitiness of the oil elevates the dish to new heights (and is heart healthy, too).

Pasta & Fagiole
Serves: approximately 6 to 8

3 (15 oz.) cans red kidney beans
3 (15 oz.) cans small white beans
3 (14-1/2 oz.) cans chicken or vegetable stock
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs. fresh rosemary, chopped
3 bay leaves, broken in half
1/2 bunch fresh swiss chard, shredded
1 (16 oz.) package baby spinach
salt & pepper, to taste
12 oz. small pasta (ditalini are nice)

Open all the cans of beans and rinse them well in a colander to remove the thick liquid. Set aside. Combine about 1 can of the white beans with 1 can of stock in a blender and process until liquefied. Set aside. (This thickens up the dish a bit and helps give it a more hearty quality.)

In an 8 quart saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add carrots, celery and onion and sauté until onions are translucent. Add garlic and sauté a minute or two longer, but don't let garlic burn! Add the reserved puréed bean and stock mixture. Reduce heat to low and stir in all remaining ingredients except for pasta. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes; remove bay leaves. At this point you can divide into portions and freeze some of this for later meals. Usually about 1 cup fagiole per person is sufficient. When you're ready to serve, boil about 2 oz. pasta per person in plenty of boiling salted water until just al denté, and stir into bean mixture. If you're serving the whole recipe at once, boil up the 12 ounces of pasta and stir into the fagiole just before serving. Drizzle each portion with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and serve with a crisp green salad and lots of crusty bread.

Notes & Pointers:
This dish freezes beautifully as long as you don't add the pasta. It makes an easy dinner after work. By the way, the photo that tops this post uses napa cabbage in addition to Swiss chard and spinach. As it happened, I had half a head of  cabbage left over from making Pad Thai over the weekend, so I improvised. Still delicious!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Having had this first-hand I can say it is really wonderful! What a delicious meal, and vegetarian friendly! Who doesn't love that?!