My crazy Italian grandmother was my favorite person in the whole world. She was incredibly smart and fiercely devoted to the people she loved. She was a tiny dynamo with a razor-sharp wit that she wielded like a ninja hurling throwing stars. She was a card shark and a great teller of jokes. She was also a superb Italian cook, making her own sauce, pasta, pizza, lasagna, soups, and many other dishes that were to die for. Gran always claimed that she hated to cook and wanted everyone to know that it was a huge hassle to prepare all her labor-intensive recipes from scratch. I remember her complaining every year that she was exhausted because she was up all night before our Christmas Eve dinner of the “Seven Fishes,” making sauce and switching out the water in which she soaked the salted cod for baccala. I never believed that Gran didn’t like to cook though, because she prepared huge family dinners all the time and I know for a fact that she derived a great deal of pleasure from the effusive compliments she always received for her efforts. Her special family recipes were carefully guarded secrets that she only reluctantly shared with us when she was in her nineties and became too infirm to make them herself.
As a third generation, Italian American I often felt removed from the old country experiences and traditions of my relatives. Much of the family history felt like those stories our elders tell us about how when they were young, they had to walk to school every day in two feet of snow with no shoes uphill both ways. But when I received these precious heirloom recipes, I felt like I was suddenly in possession of the Rosetta Stone. Finally, I would find my place in the family narrative. Like my grandmother before me, I would be the keeper of our unique and special lexicon. My children and grandchildren would gush nostalgically about my culinary prowess and the many coveted specialties that I’d lovingly preserved down through the generations. And in the end, they would fight over who would take the baton from me when, after many years, I too reluctantly retired from the kitchen.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have a highly developed fantasy life which, unfortunately, rarely bears any resemblance to my reality. This became glaringly apparent to me when I was trying to write down my Gran’s instructions for making her famous “Zuppa Pasta e Fagioli” or “Pasta Fazool,” as we called it. This is a rich roman bean soup laden with delicate ditali pasta and seasoned with crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. As a child, I knew that autumn had truly arrived when we entered her house for Sunday dinner and were enveloped in the mouth-watering aromas of her sauceless anchovy pizza and this hearty soup. I was very excited to learn how to make this meal because it evoked such poignant and happy memories for me. But I soon discovered that replicating my grandmother’s recipes was no small feat because she didn’t write anything down. A lot of her dishes contained “a little bit of this and a pinch of that.” Nevertheless, I was extremely discouraged when my attempt at the soup bore no resemblance to the culinary nirvana I remembered. In frustration, I called my grandmother, whining that she did not give me the complete recipe and pleading with her to give me specific measurements for the ingredients. This is the moment when my illusions of family heritage came crashing down. Gran thought for a moment and then said, “Honey, I got that recipe from “Redbook” magazine a million years ago, and I know I don’t have the clipping anymore.”
What?!!! I must have heard that wrong. She didn’t just tell me that this secret family recipe that I thought had been brought over from Italy and passed down from generation to generation, actually came from an article published in an American ladies magazine in the 1930’s. But yes. Yes, she did. There was no shame or apology for this unpleasant revelation. I don’t think she even realized how shocked I was. She just calmly went on trying to give me the directions for making the soup again, as if nothing of import had been said. Gobsmacked, I hung up the phone and proceeded to laugh hysterically for quite a while.
When I finally recovered from my shock, I went to work on the soup again. After much experimentation, I think I have been able to approximate her recipe fairly well. My beloved Gran has been gone for many years now, and my memory of the exact flavor of her famous bean soup has faded. But every time I make this soup, it brings back very fond memories of my grandmother and her love. And after all, that’s really the most important thing we can pass on to the next generation.
Zuppa Pasta e Fagioli
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves of garlic crushed
1 bunch of parsley diced
3 stalks of celery chopped
3 carrots chopped
1 onion chopped
6 cans of roman or pinto beans
1 large (28oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (I doubt this was in the original recipe from “Redbook”)
2 quarts of water
1 box of cooked ditali or any small tubular pasta like pipette
Fry the parsley and the garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes over medium-low heat until the garlic is fragrant and lightly browned. (My grandmother removed the parsley and garlic after it had flavored the oil, but I leave it in and puree it with the rest of the veggies.)
Add celery, carrots, and onion and sauté for 5 minutes.
Add four cans of beans, the can of tomatoes, the salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and the water.
Partially cover and simmer for three hours.
Off the heat puree with immersion blender until smooth. (Originally, I used a foley food mill to puree the soup, but once I discovered the immersion blender, I never looked back.)
Add remaining 2 cans of beans (drained and rinsed) and the cooked pasta.
Cook for another 15 minutes or until the whole beans are heated through.
Serve with Parmesan cheese.
A printable version can be found here.