The thermometer reads 9 degrees, but Yahoo weather’s telling me it feels like -8 with the wind chill. Getting out of bed this morning was a Herculean task. This is where winter begins to feel like a contact sport, and I’m tempted to paint thick, dark lines under my eyes before braving the subzero temperatures.
As winter runs its course, I find no shortage of weather-related items to lament. The simple act of walking the dogs becomes a perilous endeavor crossing sheets of corrugated ice and unevenly shoveled sidewalks. Daylight is fleeting and leaving the house for anything besides employment obligations feels impossible.
I spent a couple years living in Texas and bypassing this season entirely. Right around this time of year, I was swapping my running shorts and tank tops for capri pants and t-shirts. I retired my winter jackets and lived my life ignorant of polar vortexes and massive ice sheets wreaking havoc for my neighbors to the north.
While it was nice to run in shorts in January, I desperately missed the innate rhythm of the seasons. Prior to moving to Texas, I hadn’t given any thought to way they grounded me to time and place. Not having the months of snow and bitter cold as a touchstone left me feeling oddly unmoored, like a rowboat whose slip knot had come undone, leaving it floating aimlessly in the middle of the water, directionless and puzzled as to its current circumstances.
This is the part of the year to turn inward, and I know this instinctively because I’m no longer beckoned to venture outdoors. There’s nowhere else to go, no more energy to exert. Stillness reigns. That simple truth brings me great comfort.
Even the sadness I feel around shorter, darker days is somehow comforting. After all, who can stand to be up all the time? A little sadness serves to ground us in the reality of a human experience that expands and contracts like the ocean, constantly ebbing and flowing, adjusting and readjusting to the elements.
When it’s this cold out, I can’t stand to eat cold food. My cooking leans heavily on the tenets that govern the all-mighty stew. Holding a warm bowl of it in my hands after a long, exhausting day braving the elements serves as a spiritual salve. My cold hands tingle as they grip the warm bowl, and the ice that’s encased my chest all day slowly begins to thaw. Just like that, spring doesn’t seem quite so far away.
This recipe is a stroke of culinary genius. The base is a simple soffritto of onions, carrots, celery, garlic, chili and rosemary that’s married with some rendered pancetta then stained with a hearty spoonful of tomato paste. Add to that some cooked white beans, some of their cooking liquid, and some small blanched pasta and some of its cooking liquid, and you get a heavenly bowl of Italian comfort food. A big hunk of crusty bread and some warm tea to wash it all down and you’ll forget all about the artic freeze bearing down on the landscape on the other side of your windows.
*Note that you can use canned chickpeas for this but the result will be duller and less robust. That’s because some of the bean cooking liquid (a flavor explosion all its own) is added to the stew and imparts a tremendous amount of flavor. That being said, if time is of the essence, go with canned beans. Just remember to rinse them thoroughly as the canning liquid can impart an off flavor.
Pasta e fagioli (Pasta and beans)
- 6 ounces pancetta, diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 medium carrot, diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 springs rosemary, chopped
- 2 t pepperoncino
- 2 T tomato paste
- 1 14-ounce can San Marzano tomato, gently crushed by hand
- 1 cup small-shaped pasta (such as ditalini)
- 1 large piece of Parmesan rind
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup dry white beans
- 1 head garlic head, cut in half across its equator
- Several sprigs of aromatics (thyme sprigs, parsley stems, rosemary, and/or sage)
- Olive oil
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water. Drain, place in a pot and cover with at least two inches of cold water. Bring to boil then turn down to a simmer. Skim the surface of any scum. Add the halved garlic head, the aromatics and a large glug of olive oil. Simmer until the beans are tender with a slight bite in the center, 45 minutes to an hour depending on the type and age of the bean.
Put another large pot of water on to boil the pasta (don’t forget to add a liberal amount of salt to your pasta water).
Meanwhile, in a 4-qt soup pot, add a small glug of olive oil and the pancetta. Cook on medium heat until the fat is rendered and the pieces start to crisp. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and sweat the vegetables on medium-low heat until softened, about 15 minutes. Make a small well in the center of the pot, add a little more olive oil and to that add the garlic, rosemary, and pepperoncino. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the tomato paste and cook for another 30 seconds. Add the canned tomato and Parmesan rind. Season with salt and pepper. Once the beans are finished cooking, add them to the stew along with about 1 cup of the bean cooking liquid (you want the stew to be fairly loose at this stage as the addition of the pasta starch will thicken it slightly).
Now add your pasta to the boiling water and cook for half the time that the package indicates for al dente (you will finish cooking the pasta in the stew). Drain and save 1 cup of pasta cooking liquid.
Add the par-cooked pasta to the bean and soffritto mix and cook on medium heat for another 10 to 15 minutes to finish cooking the pasta and bring the flavors together. Adjust the thickness of the stew with pasta water and/or more bean liquid as needed.
Serve with a generous glug of fruity olive oil and a couple spoonfuls of Parmesan cheese. Chili oil is also a delight – and cleans out the sinuses!