The beautiful simplicity of pasta and beans
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NEW YORK, Oct 5 — We are permitted to heat up the kitchen now that the weather is cooling down. Not that boiling water for pasta will raise the temperature significantly. But there’s a shift of focus and an urge to fill the room with autumn aromas.
I find myself craving the woodsy scent of wild mushrooms. I also want a heartier, more substantial pasta than the kind we usually make for summer meals.
At the farmers’ market a few vendors still have fresh shelling beans. Butter beans, cannellini beans or borlotti (cranberry) beans, sold in their beautiful pods, represent the last-gasp transition into the new season. Simmered in lightly salted water, fresh shell beans are ready in a half-hour or so, as opposed to dried beans’ hour-plus, and their creamy texture is tantalising.
If shelling beans aren’t available, not to worry; you can use dried white beans and all will be well. In either case, it is a good idea to cook the beans somewhat in advance (a few hours or even a day ahead). When they’re done, let them cool in their own juices. This helps to keep the beans whole and guarantees succulence.
I love the combination of beans and pasta, and I especially like using a little of the beans’ cooking liquid instead of pasta water for finishing the dish; bean broth adds more flavour. For a most satisfying simple bean and pasta dish, warm olive oil in a pan with garlic, rosemary and crushed red pepper. Slip in the cooked drained beans to coat, then toss with al dente spaghetti and a splash of broth.
For a slightly more complex version, consider adding wild mushrooms and a little pancetta or bacon. Golden yellow wild chanterelles are a good option, both for their taste and their looks. They remind me of autumn leaves turning color. Even though chanterelles are available in summer, too, I always think of them in the fall.
With wild chanterelles, however, it’s buyer beware. They are pricey, and not every store that sells them offers specimens in good shape. They must be firm and dry, and neither withered nor soggy. If none are available, just use a mixture of cultivated pale-coloured oyster mushrooms or royal trumpets instead.
To me, the complementary flavours of olive oil, pancetta, garlic and rosemary are just right, mingling with the lightly browned mushrooms and creamy beans.
Wild Mushroom and Butter Bean Pasta
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 1 hour
2 cups fresh butter beans or other shelling beans (from about 2 pounds in the pod), or 1 cup dried cannellini or other white bean, cleaned
1 small bay leaf
Salt and pepper
3 ounces thickly sliced pancetta or slab bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide lardoons
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
12 ounces wild chanterelle mushrooms, thickly sliced or chopped or a mixture of pale oyster mushrooms
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary, plus a sprig for the pasta pot
1 pound bucatini, spaghetti or other dry pasta
2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
Parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated (optional)
1. Put beans in a pot and cover with water by 2 inches. Add bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Let beans cool to room temperature in cooking liquid and set aside. When cool, taste and correct salt. (If using dried beans, cooking time will be about 1 hour.)
2. Prepare a large pot of water for cooking pasta and bring to a boil.
3. Put pancetta in a wide, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and stir to coat. Let lardoons sizzle gently until crisp and golden, about 3 minutes. Add onions, season lightly with salt and cook, stirring, until lightly browned and softened, about 5 minutes. Remove onion mixture from pan and set aside.
4. Return pan to stove over high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is hot, add chanterelles and stir to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook, stirring until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Turn heat to medium and stir in garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and chopped rosemary. Cook for a minute more and turn off the heat.
5. Add a handful of salt to the pasta water, then add rosemary sprig and bring to a full boil. Add bucatini and stir well. Adjust heat to keep pasta cooking briskly. Cook until firmly al dente (you should feel it is not quite done) and drain.
6. While pasta is cooking, put skillet of mushrooms back on medium-high heat. Add reserved onion-pancetta mixture and heat through, stirring. Add beans and 1 cup bean cooking liquid and bring to a simmer.
7. Add cooked pasta to pan and stir well, coating the pasta with the mushroom-bean mixture. While stirring, let pasta finish cooking, about 1 minute more, adding a little more bean liquid if necessary. Transfer to a wide pasta bowl, sprinkle with parsley and serve. Offer grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese if you wish. — The New York Times