Not long ago, one of my high school friends hosted a retro luncheon. The assignment was to bring something that was “always on the table” when we were growing up. I struggled with this request. In our Italian-American household, there were no Jello salads or tuna noodle casseroles. Lasagne was way too heavy and rich for a summer afternoon, and, as usual, I was bent on being authentic. Then the flash of inspiration came—ceci beans and macaroni.
That’s what we called it in our house, before pasta became the nomenclature of choice in kitchens across the US. You may know this staple as pasta e fagioli, or the common corruption, pasta fazul. The beans are always dried, and the macaroni is typically something short and fat, most often ditalini in our house.
Our bean of choice was the chick pea (garbanzo)—ceci in Italian, which we pronounced chee chee rather than the correct chay chee. Daddy liked his beans and macaroni on the soupy side. Mom preferred more of a sauce consistency; the result was usually a happy medium. We also sometimes just enjoyed it “white,” with olive oil, garlic, and oregano. Unlike some versions you find in restaurants, ours was always meatless—no ground beef, no sausage, no pancetta— and, therefore, perfect for Friday nights, on its own as a main course or with fish. La cucina pauvera—the food of peasants, the humble fare—is always the best, and this is a great and economical dish, especially when you have a little bit of sauce left over.
I used elbows this time because that’s what I had on hand. Here’s how I made it. There are no exact measurements because that’s not how la cucina pauvera works. You cook with what you have, and you adjust accordingly for texture and taste.
Put a pot of water on. When it comes to a boil, add salt and then the macaroni. Have about a cup of tomato sauce ready. Leftover tomato sauce is my favorite because all of the flavor is already there. “Jarred” is fine. You could also use canned crushed tomatoes, but you would need to season more liberally and cook a bit longer.
And there you have it. Fast, cheap, easy, meatless, nutritious, delicious. Yes, that rhymes. I couldn’t resist.
My contribution to the retro luncheon looked a little odd amidst the all-American dishes on the table, until another friend arrived with palacsinta—those delectable Hungarian-style cheese-filled pancakes. But, as they say, it was all good, especially the molded salads (the first I’d tasted in at least 35 years) and a tuna noodle casserole that our hostess, who is a fine and ambitious cook, made from scratch.