Monday, January 7, 2013

Pasta Fagioli: Tight-Budget Cooking, Part 1

January; the longest, brokest month, when the hit of Christmas is followed by the hit of tuition bills, and we squint into the horizon at a tiny, distant payday.

There isn't much we can cut back on in our household. We have one car and don't drive it often, we never take vacations, there's nothing we can do about our permanent mountain of student loan debt, and you can tell by looking at us that we don't spend any money on clothes.

But food, food we spend on. I'm hopeless when it comes to shopping at Whole Foods, where I can't resist the out-of-season organic berries (that come out to about one dollar per berry), the overpriced loaves of bakery bread, the imported tins of sardines, bottles of pomegranate juice, and pre-made frozen potstickers that could be got for less in an actual restaurant. My grocery bill makes me dizzy, and I can't take it anymore.

Time to eat more beans.

Good timing, actually, as Henry and I are concentrating on making soups and stews, and there are infinite possibilities for inexpensive and tasty bean soups and stews. We'll be exploring these over the next month.

We started with one of my favorites, Pasta Fagioli, and at about 3 bucks per serving (would have been even cheaper had we bought dried beans and cooked them, but we haven't had that cooking lesson yet) we're off to a thrifty January start.

Pasta Fagioli
Serves 8 (I wanted a big batch so we'd have leftovers for lunch - you can halve it)

4 stalks celery, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 15-ounce cans white beans (cannellini or Great Northern), drained
16 ounces small pasta (bow ties, fusili, spaghetti broken into 1-inch pieces, anything)
minced parsley (optional)
grated parmesan (optional)

Warm olive oil in a large pot, add celery and garlic, and stir frequently over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, tomato paste, water, salt, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

OPTIONAL: After it has simmered 10 minutes, blend mixture in a blender or with a hand-held blender. I don't usually bother with this, but Henry has a lifelong aversion to "ucky slimy bits" (cooked garlic, onion, celery, etc) and prefers his sauces smooth. I must admit that blending produces a pretty color and nice texture, but this dish is delicious either way.

Add beans and stir for 5 minutes, mashing some of the beans with the back of a spoon to thicken the sauce.

Add pasta and cook 10 or so minutes, stirring constantly, until pasta is tender. Mixture will be very thick - add a little more water if you need to.

Cover pot and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Serve in big bowls, top with optional grated parmesan and/or minced parsley, and have seconds - you can afford it!