Pasta e Fagioli Mad Libs

As a kid, my mom used to make a very simple version of pasta e fagioli that could mostly come together with canned or dried goods: pasta, canned chick peas, tinned tomatoes, oil, garlic and onion. We also pronounced it “pasta fazool”. As an adult I dress it up and fill in the blanks with whatever I feel like. And I fancily try to pronounce the Italian. Mine is also not a “soupy” pasta e fagioli and tends more towards oily gravy. Since we made it last night with some fresh cranberry beans, I thought I’d share this very simple but awesome vegetarian dinner.

The basic recipe is simple. Cook lots of onion until a bit caramelized and tasty. Add lots of garlic. Add some vegetable(s). Add some (already cooked) beans. Salt, pepper, maybe some chile flake. Toss with pasta. Serve. If you want to get fancy, grate some parmesan over it. Simple.

But really the recipe looks like this:

  • Cook some ________ beans from dried or fresh. Use ________ stock if you have it. A pressure cooker is perfectly okay.
  • After the beans are about done, cook lots of onions in lots of ________ oil until golden and lovely. Use more oil than you think you need. No really.
  • Add ________ quantity of garlic. Don’t let it burn.
  • Start some ________ style pasta. Heavily salt the water.
  • Add some ________ (diced small or in ribbons depending on what kind of veggie you choose).
  • Season with salt, ________ or ________.
  • Add the cooked beans to the onion, garlic and ________ mixture. You might include a bit of bean water for flavor and extra awesome.
  • Toss beans, onions, etc. with the pasta.
  • Serve.

I am a bit obsessed with beans. All kinds. For this recipe, I’ve used:

  • Chickpeas. Of course. Strangely, ones cooked from dried taste a lot better than canned. I don’t know why but I’m pretty sure of it. Anyway, they are a lot cheaper that way.
  • Borlotti or “cranberry beans”. I’ve used dried ones and — the inspiration for this post — fresh ones still in gorgeous red and white mottled pods.
  • Pinto beans. Hey, what can I say? I almost always have pintos on hand1.
  • Christmas limas. These beans are huge. And gorgeous.
  • Small white navy beans. Not spectacular but really it’s all about the garlic-oil-gravy that forms.
  • Probably some I’m forgetting because I buy a lot of bean varieties.

While I made a Mad Lib space for the oil, I have to admit I always just use copious quantities of olive oil. I also must admit that we buy high quality olive oil which I believe matters in a recipe like this. About five years ago, I bought the house brand “virgin olive oil” and a very fancy extra virgin from a Marin County orchard. I tasted them in shot glasses — literally sipped the oil — and discovered that in fact different olive oils taste different. These days we buy not super cheap (but also not super expensive) bulk olive oily from our co-op grocery store. You can in fact taste the oil in this dish. So if you experiment keep that in mind.

The onions and garlic are non-negotiable in this recipe: you absolutely need to get those flavors cooked into the oil because ultimately they, the added veggies and a bit of bean juice will form something almost like a gravy. The traditional vegetable my mother used was a couple tins of diced tomatoes (preferably with not too much “Italian” seasoning in it). I still do that often because the tang of the tomatoes works really well (and the tomatoes melt down into the gravy pleasingly). But I don’t always have tinned tomatoes (or fresh) in the house. For a different (but good!) version, I’ve used kale, chard, spinach, carrots, and more. Obviously you may have to adjust when you add them depending on how cooked down you want them. This is Mad Libs. Go mad.

Seasoning is really simple: a fair bit of salt, some black pepper and maybe chile flake. Googling recipes I find suggestions for thyme, basil, parsley and more. Eh, whatever you like. I’m about the garlic and onions. For pasta, the traditional recipes suggest a small pasta. That’s usually what I use — right now we keep small, whole wheat2, pasta shells in the house as our usual pasta. But basically anything will work, even spaghetti. The important part is to coat that pasta with tasty, tasty oil.

That’s basically it. Sadly I have no picture to share. We ate it all already.


  1. In our house at any one time, we will likely have ten or more dried beans and lentils. Right now we have at least: black beans, pintos, piquintos, jacob’s cattle, good mother stallard, tepary, garbanzo, white navy, limas, red lentils, brown lentils, and probably more. I’m too lazy to do a real inventory now.
  2. Yes, we keep whole wheat pasta at home. Due to the pressure of everyone saying “whole” grains are better, I’ve tried lots of different pasta types. Most whole wheat pastas are gross: almost sandy. These whole wheat shells are, if you believe me, actually better than “white” ones. Nutty, creamy, not sandy. Unfortunately I can’t help you find similarly good ones as they are just the ones in the bulk bin at the grocery store.

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