A good six or seven years ago, my friend Pat raved to me about an amazing version of pasta e fagioli she had come upon in her latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated. She loved Cook’s take on the classic Italian pasta and bean soup, she said, because it was thick, chunky, and absolutely bursting with Parmesan flavor. It didn’t hurt either that the whole hearty shebang could be whipped up in just about an hour’s time.
A couple of days later, Pat appeared in my third-floor office waving a copy of the recipe and urged me to have a go at it. Of course, I was game but when I glanced at the recipe I noticed that it called for a large rind of Parmesan to be tossed in with the other ingredients. That was a bit of a problem, since—I’m semi-ashamed to admit it—I don’t tend to use chunk Parmesan as my everyday Parmesan. And the Parmigiano Reggiano chunks I do keep in the house are treated like a controlled substance: Seldom is there more than a tiny nubbin of rind left when I am through with it. So did I simply blow off the recipe? Did I take a stab and ignore that cheese rind demand? Not bloody likely. Instead, geek that I am, I taped the recipe over my computer and proceeded to squirrel away parmesan rinds one tiny nub at a time.
Finally, one September my little bag in the freezer boasted what I though would equal the 5 inch by 2 inch rind the recipe called for. I could barely contain myself with excitement as I assembled my other ingredients. I followed the recipe to the letter and you know what? It didn’t just rock, it ROARED. My family, which will never recognize soup as a meal, went for it that night like wolves. Even Noah . . . who doesn’t eat anything that has even a blush of tomato. The entire batch was polished off by the next night’s dinner.
Like a good apostle, I reported back to Pat. I raved. I swooned. I lamented the fact I would have to wait another three years until I had enough Parmesan rind to make her amazing Pasta Fazool. Which is when Pat said . . . “What are you talking about? You can get Parmesan rinds at just about any good deli or Italian food store. And sometimes the even give it to you for free.” Do I need to say more? Other than the fact that what Pat says is true and I’m grateful she didn’t tape a “kick me” sign on my back. And, oh--you don’t even need to use Parmigiano Reggiano rinds. Any rind from a nice Parmesan will do just fine. Enjoy.
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 ounces pancetta, chopped (Supermarkets usually sell it at the deli counter where the slice meats are. Ask them to just cut you a chunk.)
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 celery rib, chopped fine (about 2/3 of a cup)
4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 1 heaping Tbsp.)
1 tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
3 anchovy fillets, minced to a paste (about 1 tsp.)
1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, with their liquid
1 piece Parmesan cheese rind, about 5 inches by 2 inches
2 cans (15.5 ounces each) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 ½ cups canned low-sodium chicken broth
5-6 ounces small pasta shapes (Ditalini and Tubetini are both great, orzo will do, as well)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Ground black pepper
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it is shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add onion and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and anchovies; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minutes. Add tomatoes, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pan. Add cheese rind and beans; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer to blend flavors, 10 minutes. Add chicken broth, 2 ½ cups water, and 1 tsp. salt; increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until tender, about 10 minutes (refer to package instructions for a better estimate of the pasta’s cooking time.)
2. Discard cheese rind. Off heat, stir in 3 Tbsps. of the parsley; adjust seasoning with salt and pepper (taste before you sprinkle—the pancetta already packs a salty punch). Ladle soup into individual bowls; drizzle each serving with olive oil and sprinkle with a portion of the remaining parsley. Serve immediately, passing the grated Parmesan separately. Makes about 3 quarts.