Saturday, November 20, 2010

Minestra di Fagioli

Fagioli beans in Emiliana's hand.
I always say there are two kinds of Italians from my father's generation -- the ones who will always love minestra di fagioli because it sustained their families through the darkest days of WWII, and the ones who can never look at a fagioli bean again because it's all they ate throughout the darkest days of WWII. Both are totally understandable.

My dad falls firmly into the love category -- in fact fagioli is practically a religion in our family. We grow them every summer, spend time together harvesting and shelling them, freeze them, eat them all winter, and have heated debates about whether we should add potatoes to a particular batch. My brother Paolo has been known to eat nothing else for days and swears it is the best possible breakfast.

In our family, we use the word fagioli exclusively, but I have learned the beans we are referring to are more commonly called cranberry beans, a perfect name given the deep red veins of colour running through both the pods and the beans themselves. To add to the confusion, we also use the same word for both the beans and for the dish, a thick stew/soup of celery, onion, carrot and lots of beans. It is wonderful as a vegetarian dish, and also great with a good chunk of pork in it.

As with most of our family recipes, I learned it without measurements, just ingredients, so the measurements below are approximate, and nothing to be too particular about. Cook from your heart and you can't go wrong with a rustic, wholesome dish like this.

2 large onions
2 large carrots 
3 or 4 celery stalks (with lots of leaves)
1 leak
3 or 4 garlic cloves

2 small tomatoes (skins removed)
2 cups cranberry beans (canned or frozen - if dried, prepare/soak in advance. Romano beans also work well)
4 tablespoons canola oil (canola is what my Nonna would have used, olive oil is fine too)
2 or 3 pork ribs
3 cups water
Salt & pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano, Montasio or Pecorino Romano cheese
Handful of parsley 

Finely chop all of the vegetables (except parsley) and sauté in the oil until softened. Add the meat and continue to cook for 10 or 15 minutes. Add beans and water. Simmer gently for about an hour, more is better. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove 1 to 2 cups of the soup and puree it in a blender, then add it back into the pot so about half of the beans are still whole, and the rest have added a creamy rich texture to your dish. (My mom accomplishes this without using her blender, she takes a big wooden spoon and gently mashes a little less than half of the beans against the side of the pot - it is old-world perfection).

Reheat before serving, stir in a handful of freshly chopped parsley and top each serving with a generous grating of cheese. It is one of those magical soups that is better the next day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Friulano Garden . . . in Canada

We're just pulling out the last of the radicchio and cleaning up the garden for winter. We'll plant garlic soon (if it ever stops raining long enough) so it can tough out the winter.

One of the first things Kelly and I did when we moved out of the city to this house on the Sunshine Coast was to put in a vegetable garden. After years of growing tomatoes and cucumbers in pots on our urban Vancouver roof deck, having space for a wonderful big garden is thrilling.

That first summer though we didn't do very well. After we'd dug the plot, bought lumber for edging and hauled in several truckloads of soil to augment the rocky surface of our lot, we only managed a very small crop of beans and cucumbers that year. We joked about eating our $12 cucumbers.

We're still newbies, learning all the time, and luckily we have my dad, Italo, to teach us (which sometimes sounds a little like barking orders but we're good with that!).

Growing up, my mom and dad always had an amazing garden. I think they were always delightfully surprised at how well the hearty winter vegetables of Northern Italy grew in the cold (and rainy) northern BC climate. Every year, we had an abundance of cauliflower, broccoli, various zucca (squash), beloved fagioli beans and the ubiquitous zucchini (monsters!). Oh, and raddicchio and arugula -- absolute staples. My dad has always had a greenhouse as well for the more delicate produce, like gorgeous tomatoes and fragrant little cucumbers.

And so, we too are learning the nuances of gardening: planting by the phases of the moon as my dad insists; carefully saving, drying and replanting the seeds from the best specimens; harvesting and freezing the bounty to savour all winter; and, most of all, just enjoying the simple satisfaction of feeding our family a meal we grew with our own hands in our own soil.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


These puffs of loveliness are made with yeast dough and flavoured with cheese, fresh herbs and crumbled pancetta.

I make these from my homemade pizza dough – tearing off a knob of dough when I make it and saving it to make into fritters, either the same day or freezing for a day when a doughy pick-me-up is in order.

Once you have the dough made, the fritters are a wonderful opportunity for creativity. For this batch, I used montasio cheese, pancetta and fresh parsley. Other great combinations are asiago, salami and olives, or parmesan, basil and bits of oven-dried tomatoes.

For my kids, I make a mean cheese and pepperoni version and call them “pizza balls” – a name that elicits mischievous little giggles.

Fresh pizza dough (but really, don’t make dough just for this! Have a fabulous pizza night and save a little dough for these.)
Chopped herbs
Crumble pancetta, bacon or finely sliced ham or salami
Finely grated parmesan, montasio or asiago cheese (or any cheese you love)

Break off a piece of pizza dough, about the size of a golf ball. Knead about a tablespoon each of herbs, cheese and cooked meat into the piece and roll into a ball. Repeat until you have as many dough balls as you’d like.
Heat about 3 inches of oil in a deep pot to 350 degrees. Gently fry a few fritters at a time, removing to a paper towel lined plate once they are golden brown. Lightly sprinkle the hot fritters with salt and serve immediately.

I served these with freshly sliced prosciutto (made by my Dad, Italo) and arugula from the garden dressed simply with oil, red wine vinegar and garlic.