Parmesan Cheese Broth Pasta Fagioli

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bowls of pasta fagioli at the table

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

There are many different iterations of pasta fagioli, and they usually fall under two categories: Italian and Italian American. When I was growing up, my mom made the Italian American kind: Tomatoes, herbs, vegetables, and cans of cheap beans cooked with a generous helping of ground sausage to create a delicious, aromatic, and fortified soup that became the winter meal of my youth. My brother and I were admittedly fiends for our mother’s pasta fagioli. Once she made it, a big pot of the stew sat in the fridge (taking up entirely way too much refrigerator space) for almost a week until the three of us gleefully cleared it out. Early in the morning, we would raid the fridge, ladle this bean and sausage stew into big blue bowls, and then microwave it for breakfast. Pasta fagioli became our winter’s content.

Lately though, I have begun to embrace the plant-forward spirit of many Italian dishes. “If a dish doesn’t need meat, I shouldn’t add it,” I often reaffirm to myself. Pasta fagioli literally means “pasta and beans,” so I decided to research the roots of this dish. I came across many articles, blogs, and videos detailing a method of puréeing cooked cannellini beans and mixing the purée into the soup itself, creating a stew-like, not soupy, consistency. This appealed to my sensibilities, but I still felt like I wanted more from this rustic Italian dish. I also needed to somehow replace the umami of the ground sausage I had become so accustomed to. Then it hit me: Parmesan broth.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Parmesan broth is essentially a stock made out of Parmesan cheese rinds. As you finish pieces of Parm, it’s a good idea to toss the rinds in a zip-top bag and stash them in the freezer, but if you don’t have enough to make stock (this recipe calls for 1 pound of rinds), you can buy Parmesan rinds at many grocery stores, Italian markets, or cheese shops. When stewed, the tough and chewy rinds soften and release all of their amazing flavor, creating a salty, nutty, cheesy umami-packed broth that can be used for risotto, pasta, or soup.

This pasta fagioli is far from what I grew up eating. There’s the cheese broth, but I’ve also opted for dried beans instead of canned. All of this means the soup takes a bit longer to make than my mom’s version, but I think the extra effort is worth it. It’s the perfect recipe to make on a lazy Sunday. Soak the beans on Saturday night, then cook them while the broth simmers. When you’re done, you’ll have a great dinner, and plenty of leftovers. The delicious, deeply flavored soup is one that you’ll keep coming back to, like my brother and I did as kids, for days on end.

This plant-forward take on the classic Italian pasta-and-beans soup gets its richness from a slow simmered, deeply flavored Parmesan broth.

Ingredients

For the Parmesan cheese broth:

  • 1 pound

    Parmesan cheese rinds

  • 5 leek leaves

    (from the leeks in the soup base)

  • 5 sprigs

    fresh parsley

  • 5 sprigs

    fresh thyme

  • 2 teaspoons

    whole black peppercorns

  • 12 cups

    (3 quarts) water

For the beans:

  • 8 ounces

    dried chickpeas (about 1 1/4 cups)

  • 8 ounces

    dried cannellini beans (about 1 1/4 cups)

  • 6 cloves

    garlic, divided

  • 4 sprigs

    fresh oregano, divided

  • 4 sprigs

    fresh thyme, divided

  • 2 sprigs

    fresh rosemary, divided

  • 2

    bay leaves, divided

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided

  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the soup base:

  • 1

    medium white onion

  • 2 tablespoons

    unsalted butter

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt, plus more as needed

  • 3

    medium carrots (about 8 ounces total)

  • 3 stalks

    celery (about 6 ounces total), plus the leaves for garnish

  • 2

    medium leeks (about 1 1/2 pounds total)

  • 1 tablespoon

    olive oil

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 12 ounces

    dried ditalini pasta (scant 2 1/2 cups, or other small soup pasta)

  • Crusty bread or garlic bread, for serving

Instructions

  1. Place 8 ounces dried chickpeas in a medium saucepan and add enough cool water to cover by at least 2 inches. Repeat with 8 ounces dried cannellini beans in a second medium saucepan. Let soak at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

Make the broth:

  1. Place 1 pound Parmesan cheese rinds, 5 fresh parsley sprigs, 5 fresh thyme sprigs, and 2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns in a large pot or Dutch oven. Remove 5 outer leaves from the leeks for the soup base, rinse clean, and add to the pot. Add 12 cups (3 quarts) water and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally.

  2. Reduce the heat so that the liquid is barely simmering and cook, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes with a heatproof spatula to keep the cheese from sticking to the bottom, until the broth is cloudy, intensely flavorful with cheese, and reduced by about half, 2 to 3 hours. (This is a good time to cook the beans.)

  3. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl. Pour the broth through the strainer; you should have 6 to 8 cups broth. If you have less, make the difference up with water to get at least 6 cups. Discard the contents of the strainer.

Make the beans:

  1. Drain the beans and return to their respective saucepans. Add the following to each saucepan: 3 peeled garlic cloves, 2 fresh oregano sprigs, 2 fresh thyme sprigs, 1 fresh rosemary sprig, and 1 bay leaf. Add enough water to each pan to cover the beans by at least 2 inches.

  2. Bring each saucepan to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, 1 1/4 to 2 hours. (This is a good time to prep the vegetables for the soup base.)

  3. Strain each pot of beans through a fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof bowl and reserve both the beans and cooking liquid. Do your best to pick out any large chunks of garlic and herbs, but it’s OK if a little bit of cooked herbs remain in the beans.

  4. Place 2 cups of the cannellini beans, 1 cup of their cooking liquid, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until a smooth paste forms, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large bowl. Repeat blending the same amount of chickpeas, cooking liquid, and salt; transfer to the same bowl of cannellini bean paste. You should have both bean paste and whole cooked beans now.

Make the soup:

  1. Dice 1 medium white onion. Place the onion, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally and reducing the heat as needed, until the onions are lightly caramelized, 20 to 30 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, peel and dice 3 medium carrots and dice 3 celery stalks (1 1/4 cups each). Trim 2 medium leeks and remove any tough dark outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise and rinse away any dirt. Cut into the same size as the carrots and celery (about 2 1/2 cups).

  3. Add the leeks and cook over medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes. If the leeks absorb all the butter, add 1 tablespoon olive oil or bean cooking liquid to the pot. Add the carrots and celery and cook until all the vegetables are soft and aromatic, 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil.

  4. Add 6 cups of the broth to the vegetables and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the bean pastes and stir to combine. Add the whole cooked beans, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with kosher salt and black pepper as needed.

  5. Add 12 ounces dried ditalini pasta (scant 2 1/2 cups) to the boiling water and cook according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. To serve, add some cooked ditalini to each bowl, then ladle a generous helping of pasta fagioli on top. Garnish with celery leaves and serve with crusty bread or garlic bread.

Recipe Notes

Beans: I like using both chickpeas and cannellini beans in pasta fagioli. Chickpeas have a more substantial, firmer texture that holds up well in this soup. However, if you don’t feel like using so many pots, substitute 8 more ounces dried cannellini beans for the chickpeas with all the aromatics in one pot.

Make ahead: The broth can be made up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated in an airtight once cooled, or frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before using.

Storage: The soup and cooked pasta can be refrigerated in separate airtight containers for up to 1 week. The soup (with or without the pasta mixed in) can also be frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw in the refrigerator before reheating.

Danny Palumbo

Contributor

Danny is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has appeared in the LA Times, LA Magazine, Eater, and The Takeout. Currently, he is a staff writer for the taste test website Sporked. Danny is also a former line cook, having cooked in restaurants since the age of 16. A Pennsylvania native with Italian and Greek heritage, Danny grew up in a small town with plenty of Middle-Eastern influence. So, he loves fresh pasta, pepperoni rolls, Pittsburgh salads, kibbeh, lamb, and dolmas. Mangiamo!

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