Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Broke Not Poor Cuisine: Pastafazool

There are always questions about pastafazool. The first one I was aware of came in third grade, when a new kid, James Mastrobuono, was seated behind me. He weighed around 300 pounds and was about 14, and was the latest immigrant who'd been brought over to work for, um, the local businessmen's association. Sort of a charitable deal. Jimmy would kick the back of my chair rhythmically, and say "Hey, Emmun. Hey, Emmun." (The teachers all called us by our legal given names, at least until Evelyne Thomas Durnford had an audience with one after a particularly severe playground thrashing). "Hey, Emmun. Hey, Emmun." The whole point was to get me to say, "What?" which, in order to get this obese moron to stop kicking me, I'd usually do. "You mama make you pastafazool?" he'd say, and then collapse in helpless laughter. So would some of his friends. (Revenge, of course, came with puberty: nobody with a name like Jimmy Mastrobuono was going to escape verbal savagery, even if, by then, he weighed more like 600 pounds. The last time I saw him, he was heaving  his bulk on and off the back of a city garbage truck.)

But a word had been planted in my head, and it took a while to process. I figured out a couple of things. First, it was a dish. Second, the word pastafazool was Southern Italian (like the kids I grew up with) for the more refined pasta a la fagiole. Third, there are about a hundred ways to make it. Is it a soup? Is it a stew? Is it a sauced pasta dish? The answer is yes. It's also so humble you'll probably never get it in a restaurant -- or even get most chefs to admit they make it. Not me: pastafazool, the way I make it, is a staple of broke-but-not-poor cuisine, and yet it's so good that once riches and the infinite possibilities they offer shower down on me, as I fervently hope they will, I'll keep making it. It's that good.

Now, Americans have an advantage: they can make pastafazool with Italian sausage. The words may indicate otherwise, but Italian sausage is an American dish. It's what Southern Italian salsiccie has evolved into in the New World, and it's better than any of the original I've had. And I've had the original, first from a Berlin restaurant whose proprietoress had it shipped up from Naples, and, then, from an Italian deli in Berlin that started stocking it. Nope: American Italian sausage, redolent with fennel seeds and hot peppers, is the real deal. Around here I make do with a product called chair à saucisse, which is like basic sausage meat with very little seasoning. Or do without, when I'm really broke (but not poor).

Anyway, here's what you do. First, assemble your ingredients:

What we have here is, on the lower row, a can of white beans, some fennel seeds, some crushed canned tomatoes, and an ingredient I have to smuggle in from Germany (although it's also available in the U.S.), namely powdered rosemary. The upper row has an almost-invisible bay leaf, some Japanese chiles (aka chile hontaka, chile japonès or basic dried chiles in the States), an onion, and some garlic. Also some salt and pepper.

So chop your onion and garlic, heat up some olive oil, and start sauteeing the onion. When it's just starting to turn yellow, toss in your garlic and stir-fry for a minute or so. There are four cloves of garlic here; I kinda like garlic.

Now, if you're using Italian sausage, this is the point to add it and stir it around some. It's best if it's loose, but it's also okay to use coins if it's too hard to get the casing off. Stir it around until it's not pink any more. Otherwise, this is the point where you add your chiles -- there are seven in there -- and about this much fennel seed. You might want to do this in lesser quantity even if you do have Italian sausage.

Also add the bay leaf and stir this around some. All three of these flavorings are dependent on the release of oil and a quick toss in the olive oil helps start that process.

Put in your tomatoes. Mine are so dense that I also add some water, about a quarter-can's worth, which'll evaporate during the course of cooking. Not doing this risks burning the sauce. With tomatoes, you do not want to burn the sauce, trust me.

Now sprinkle in your rosemary powder. This is about enough: 

Now you add some salt -- a bit more than you would if you were going to use it as is, because you'll be adding beans -- and let it stew a while. Meanwhile, drain your beans. You can also do the whole routine of cooking dried beans -- or even fresh beans if you've got access to them. This takes a while, though, and with the canned product being so cheap I can't be bothered. I also tried making this with the local cocos, white beans that come in the pod, and undercooked them and gave myself one hell of a stomach ache. 

I always rinse the glutinous crap they're packed in -- although it's only bean water -- from the canned product. It'll thicken your sauce unacceptably. Anyway, you've got about 30 minutes to wait, because you're anticipating the point where some oil separates from the cooking sauce: 

At this point, stir it a bit just to keep it liquid. You've already started your pasta water, right? Because we're about ready here. Add the beans and stir. You won't cook them long -- just long enough to get them hot, although a little longer won't kill anyone. 

Right. Now your pasta's going, and you get the garnishes ready: parsley and Parmigiano. 

That parsley mill is a bog-standard French supermarket one, a copy of the equally useless Mouli herb mill. What you want, if you can find it, is the plastic one made by the Swiss company, Zyliss. It does a better job and, unless you try to grind tree twigs in it, lasts longer. Or you can, you know, be primitive and chop the parsley by hand. 

Anyway, you've cooked the pasta, tipped a tablespoon of the water into your sauce for good luck, and drained it. You've put half the sauce into your pasta pot (assuming, of course, that you're dining alone, as is the lot of the broke-but-not-poor, although this recipe makes two servings), dusted it with the parsley, returned the pasta (which, of course, is fusilli, because that's the right kind with this sort of a sauce, but you knew that, right?) to the pot, stirred it, added a bit of Parmesan, stirred it some more, and turned it out onto the plate, where you dust it with more Parmesan. And then you go eat it, because that's what pastafazool is for. 

I gotta say, I decided to document this particular batch and it turned out better than average. Real good, so check those proportions. And the leftovers were, of course, better than the first time around, because the sauce had had a few days in the fridge to mix all those flavors together. 

Pastafazool: it's what's for dinner!

The next broke-but-not-poor cooking segment will feature a breakfast that will get you going in fine style. But there's other stuff to post first, so go buy your beans. 


  1. North Americans heard the Siciliocution 'pasta-fazool' on B&W '50s TV used as a guinea-gag by Italian American comics, but I've never seen it until now.

  2. Dayum, but that looks goooood. Will be making that soon!

  3. There was a cartoon from the 30s/40s in which (maybe it was a Popeye vehicle?) a crowd identifies the protagonist as an "impostor". The dialogue goes:





    Oft repeated around the elementary schoolyard, usually followed by peals of laughter. It took one of my Italian friends to set me straight about what that meant (other than simply a funny word). Shortly afterward, his mom invited me to dinner and served the dish itself. I loved it then, and still make it for myself often. In fact, until a few minutes ago, I had no idea what to make for dinner tonight!

    Thanks for both the memories and the menu inspiration, Ed!

  4. Ey, Robin


    Ey, Robin


    (I'm actually making it again tonight myself)


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