Beans and macaroni

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.

Drain a can of ceci, reserving half the liquid from the can, and season with salt, a grating of pepper, and dried oregano. Feel free to add a little cracked red pepper if you prefer a touch of heat.
Heat olive oil in a saucepan and add a clove of garlic, sautéing just until it turns golden. Remove the garlic.
Heat the tomato sauce with a fresh basil leaf, or a bit of dried basil, and the reserved liquid from the can of beans. Coarsely chop the garlic and return it to the sauce pot.
Drain the macaroni, reserving about half a cup of the pasta water (more if you prefer a soupier consistency). Add the ceci to the sauce, bring to a good boil, then simmer until well heated through.
Add the macaroni and pasta water and stir to combine. Remove to a serving bowl. Stir in a generous grating of Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano (my preference).

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.

7 thoughts on “Beans and macaroni

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s