Our pasta fagioli has never been particularly traditional--it's more like a marinara with a lot of white beans blended in than any bean-based brothy soup. I don't think I've ever made a pasta fagioli that could be considered a soup, actually, and I'm fine with that. It's still incredibly easy to cook, is made from the most affordable of ingredients, and can be done in a bare 20 minutes. Besides, it's delicious and filling! Here's the basic method.
hot pepper of your choice
cooked white beans
oregano, basil, paprika, salt, pepper
water, broth, or dry vermouth, for deglazing & thinning
pasta of your choice
Warm olive oil in a wide sauté pan while you peel and chop an onion and a handful of garlic cloves. Soften the onion and garlic over medium heat while you mince a jalapeño or other hot pepper of your choice. If you don't have a taste for spice, feel free to leave it out.
Add the peppers, season with oregano, basil, paprika, and a touch of salt, stir, and let cook. If you want to add any other sturdy vegetables, go ahead. I've used mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, olives, celery, and carrots, all to good effect. If you want to add greens, wait a little while--you can either melt them in just before puréeing, for a totally smooth sauce, or chop them and add them at the very end of cooking, to get big chunks of greens throughout.
Once your vegetables are soft and fragrant, deglaze the pan with a little vermouth or water (if needed) and add your tomato purée. You can, of course, use tomato sauce, paste plus broth or water, chopped fresh tomatoes--whatever you have around. Add your cooked white beans as well. I often use precooked white beans frozen in their broth, which I just chuck into the pot and let melt. If you aren't using broth, you may need to add some water to keep your sauce from scorching.
Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Stir well, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and let simmer for at least five or ten minutes. This is a good time to put your pasta on to cook, if you haven't already done so. Chunky pasta works best.
Once your beans and tomatoes have had a chance to absorb all the herb-garlic-onion flavors, it's time to purée. It's easiest to just take the pan off the heat and purée the contents with an immersion blender. You could also use a blender or even a potato masher--whatever floats your boat.
Now, take a look at your sauce Is it too thin? Put it back on the heat and let it reduce. Is it too thick? Add some water or broth. Taste and correct seasonings here as well. If you want to make your sauce creamy, you can add some milk, cream, yogurt, or cream cheese at this point--just don't bring it to a boil again or the dairy will curdle.
When you're satisfied with your sauce, take it off the heat, add some chopped parsley, and mix it with your cooked, drained pasta. Voila! Pasta fagioli!
Okay. So what if you want to switch it up a little bit?
You could stir some spinach into your fagioli at the end of cooking and mix it with cooked Israeli couscous. This is not too far from the norm for pasta fagioli; after all, Israeli couscous is actually pasta, not grain.
I think this version would be especially good to feed kids--hey, miniature pasta is definitely more fun than plain macaroni!
You can mix your sauce with kale and cooked ziti, spread it in a gratin dish, top it with olive-oiled breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, asiago, or romaro cheese, and bake it at 350F until crispy and delightful. If you want to take it a step further, you can stir in chunks of mozzarella or goat cheese along with the kale and ziti. Pasta gratin is always a good plan--and pasta fagioli gratin is an even better one.
Or you can move entirely away from pasta and put your bean and tomato purée on something else. How about roasted cauliflower?
Just chop up a cauliflower, toss the florets with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast at 400F for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy. Serve the cauliflower with fagioli sauce and chopped parsley.
Clearly, pasta fagioli can take practically anything you can throw at it--what more could you ask?