When I was in graduate school, I would stop by Olive Garden before class to pick up some Pasta Fagioli and breadsticks. The soup and breadsticks would help make the ordeal of 6pm to 10pm classes a bit easier to endure. I'm sure that some people would look down upon my enjoyment of Olive Garden's soup, but I guess that's how it goes.
I had to make a shortcut on the pasta portion of this dish (see the notes) and will not do so again. What I did get right, however, was taking the time to make chicken stock the night before. I don't like using store-bought water with chicken extract added, er, stock and find that taking the time to make my own gets things off to a good start.
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large celery stalk, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
1 quart chicken stock
2-4 cups water
16 ounces tomato sauce
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1 cup ditalini or pater lisci
1. In a large stockpot over high heat, brown the ground beef. Be sure to crumble the ground beef so that you have small, uniform pieces. Once browned, remove beef from pot with a slotted spoon and reserve. Keep the grease in the pot. Also, any fond in the pot will deglaze when you later add the broth, so don't worry.
2. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pot and add the onion, garlic, celery and carrot and cook over medium heat until vegetables are softened.
3. Add ground beef back into the pot, along with crushed tomatoes and crushed red pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes.
4. Add the beans, chicken stock, water, tomato sauce and all of the remaining seasoning. Stir well. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Add pasta and continue to simmer until pasta is cooked al dente (slightly firm, not hard). This should take just a few minutes.
6. Spoon into bowls, grate cheese over soup and serve with crusty bread.
In the photo above, I used Pater lisci. Here in Los Angeles, you should be able to get it - or ditalini - at Bay Cities.
Some people might discard the grease from the ground beef, but I like to keep it in the pot. It will give the soup a nice sheen, as well as adding some additional flavor. You can skim off some of the fat that might form as orange-ish scum, however.
When you add the water, start with 2 cups and add more as needed. You want the soup to be not be thinner than a chili, but not as thin as a soup. I guess you could say that you are going for a "stoup." Dear God, I just used a Rachel Ray term.