One of my favorite childhood memories is of being sick. Not really sick, mind you – not sick enough to vomit or have a headache. Just sick enough to lay in my parents’ bed all day and watch reruns of I Dream of Jeannie while everyone at school was working on long division.
My favorite thing to eat on those days was Progresso’s Pasta e Fagioli soup. I remember carefully bringing the steaming broth to my mouth, inhaling the sweet tomatoes and delightfully squishy pasta. I always shook the green can of Parmesan cheese into the bowl so that a thin layer of white covered the top, adding a salty (and-now that I know what real Parmesan cheese tastes like-somewhat dusty) taste to the soup.
This is a dramatic upgrade on that classic. It takes only about 45 minutes to make, but the addition of pancetta, mushrooms, and a heavy hit of cayenne pepper create a complex, multilayered soup that is a real showstopper. It is thicker heartier than the original, so increase the stock if you want a thinner soup. Also, be sure to use a very large stockpot, since the pasta in the soup swells and increases in volume.
Pasta e Fagioli
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock
4 oz. pancetta, diced
1 onion, diced
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, diced
1 tbsp. dried oregano
cayenne pepper to taste (I use about 2 tsp.)
2 cups ditalini or tubetti pasta
1 can cannellini beans
1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and sliced or quartered
1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
1 large handful basil, chiffonaded
3. Add the tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then add the ditalini. This pasta should take about 10 minutes to cook. As it cooks, it releases starches and the soup will thicken dramatically.
This soup is even better than my childhood favorite. The tomatoes have a sweet, concentrated flavor and the beans add a creamy component. The pancetta is salty, the mushrooms are meaty and savory, and the oregano adds an earthy, grounded note. The pasta should be cooked until it is al dente, not falling apart, and the trick of seasoning with cheese instead of salt means that the soup is not overwhelmed by sodium. The cheese melts and becomes crispy in some places, stringy in others. The cayenne adds a heat that is reminiscent of fra diavolo, and the basil is a fresh crowning touch. The soup is even better the second day and may need some water or stock added when it is reheated.