Let’s get one thing clear, right off the bat. This is the best dish I’ve made in a while.
It’s cavatappi pasta with cannellini beans, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. A bare-bones spin on pasta e fagioli. Ludicrously inexpensive, and nearly idiot-proof to make. Easy enough for a weeknight, fancy and plentiful enough to serve to guests.
Have I mentioned how fabulous this is?
I’d had this recipe bookmarked for nearly a year, but really, I’m always conflicted when it comes to trying new pasta dishes. I love the flavor and texture of a well-sauced pasta, but my poor insulin-flooded body always makes me regret it afterward. This is decidedly a Sometimes Food for me. So I’ve made up my mind that there’s no room in my life for mediocre pasta. And I hold off on trying new things, for fear of using up my pasta-allotment on something disappointing.
Then my darling friend Audrey went to Italy for a spell. Knowing me as well as she does, she brought back the perfect souvenir. Not a snow-globe, not a keychain, and not one of those joke aprons with the hairy male torso.
She got me a pack of sun-dried tomatoes.
I have an odd weakness for th0se wrinkly brick-tinted suckers–even the cheap bad ones have a challenging chew and sweet-sour punch that I can’t resist. And the tomatoes Audrey brought back were good. So, so good. I could have easily eaten the entire package out of hand in one go–in fact, I considered it.
But then pasta called to me.
Shall I explain the magic of this recipe? It lies in three simple steps, traditional in so many pasta dishes:
- The garlic is thinly sliced and oh-so-gently toasted in olive oil.
- The sauce is thickened with simmered pasta cooking water.
- The pasta is drained shy of doneness and finished in the sauce.
In this case, a number of wonderful things happen: the garlic slices turn warm and rich, mimicking the shape and flavor of the beans and tomatoes; the pasta water rehydrates the tomatoes, turning them into juicy pungent morsels; and the abundant bean and pasta starch in the pan clings to the surface of the noodles, creating a velveteen-textured veil of a sauce.
I had neither the parsley nor the fresh Parmesan recommended in the recipe, so I swapped in a little dried lavender, of which I have oodles. (Stay tuned for that story.) I also took a page from the last time I made beans and tomatoes, and crisped all the ingredients together in the pan before adding water. I heartily approve of doing it this way: the beans wrinkled and toasted, and about half of them lazily slumped open as they simmered, exuding their creamy interiors into the sauce. Ahhhhhh.
Other than that, I followed directions, obediently. The original recipe called for a pound of pasta, which led to a fairly thinly-sauced dish. Next time, I might use half the pasta and simmer the sauce down to a bare minimum of liquid before finishing the whole thing off. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
On to the recipe!
Pasta e Fagioli with Sun-Dried Tomatoes (serves 4-6)
Adapted from the Amateur Gourmet
1 lb. cavatappi (or any other short cool-shaped pasta that strikes your fancy)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 (15-0z.) can cannellini beans, drained, rinsed and thoroughly dried
4-5 cloves garlic, sliced
Large pinch red pepper flake (maybe 1/4 tsp)
1 1/2 cups sun-dried tomatoes, drained (if packed in oil) and sliced into small pieces
1/2 tsp dried rosemary OR 1/4 tsp dried lavender
1/2 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Boil pasta in lots of salted water. When it’s about a minute shy of the recommended cooking time, scoop out and reserve 2 cups of pasta water, then drain pasta and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large (large!) skillet or deep-sided saute pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. (If your sun-dried tomatoes are packed in olive oil, you can replace up to 2 tbsp of the regular olive oil with tomato oil.) Add beans and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are just starting to turn wrinkly and crisp and fragrant. Add garlic and red chili flake and saute for about another 5 minutes, just until it picks up a little golden color. Add tomatoes, spread the contents of the pan in a single layer, and let sizzle for a couple minutes.
Pour in 3/4 cup of the pasta water and bring to a vigorous simmer, then let it bubble until the liquid has reduced to a glaze on the bottom of the pan. Add the rest of the pasta water, then crush the dried herbs between your palms and stir them in. Bring back to a simmer and let boil pretty vigorously for another 10-15 minutes, or until the liquid has thickened and reduced again to about 1/4 of its volume. Toss in the pasta and let it cook the rest of the way in the sauce–it will absorb some of the remaining liquid.
Remove from the heat and stir in cheese (if using). Add black pepper to taste, but be careful with the salt–the pasta water should have added all you need.