Learning to Host

DSC_0116If I were home, I would not write a post on what I ate for dinner.  But somehow here, it seems interesting.  There’s subtle magic in our Italian kitchen.  Cooking isn’t a chore.  It doesn’t tire me out.  The ingredients are more compelling and everything tastes better.  I know it’s not me.  I’m not a chef or even close to one.  I’m not especially intuitive in the kitchen.  I don’t even know why certain ingredients go together.  However, we eat really well here.  I think one explanation for the elevated quality is due to the contagious passion of the Italians.  They believe in their food.  They talk about it like a sports fan talks about the playoffs.  This week I listened to a grocer describe the nuances of a tiny green legume that grows 15 miles outside the city.  He went on and on.  By the end of his speech, I was heading home with several bags of beans and a single-minded enthusiasm to cook them all.   I had never succeeded in properly cooking a dried bean at home.  Never.  (The long soaking, the slow simmering and the seasoning were too tricky.) Yet here, beans come out just right.

The beans feel good.  I'd like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

The beans feel good. I’d like to have a little legume sandbox when we get home.

My favorite is the local borlotti.  When Antonio the bean seller sold me a bag, he looked to the sky and gesticulated as if to say, “There are no words for this!”  But then he finally added, “This bean is so exceptional; it isn’t even a bean.  It’s . . . meat.”

Later, we tried it in soup. It gave us the confidence needed to make it for company, and that’s saying a lot, because it is so intimidating to cook for Italians.  They each have conflicting opinions about what ingredients should go in what dish.  They fiercely believe in their own family recipes.    And culturally, the whole set-up is different.

To begin with, guests arrive no earlier than 8:00 at which point the host has finished preparing the meal.  Appetizers are served while seated at the dinner table.  Wine is drunk during dinner, but the drinking isn’t as heavy.  The speed at which one eats is greater.  The servings are bigger.  But the biggest difference is the quantity of courses.

I tried to follow these guidelines when Cristiano, the Pasta Man, came to our house last night.

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He arrived at 8:00.  Of course, the bean soup wasn’t the only thing we served.  It was one of 10 plates of food we ate throughout the night including Umbrian cheeses, Umbrian meats, grilled eggplant, pasta and bean soup, a lemon caper chicken, three sides of vegetables and a tray of oranges with olive oil.  The prettiest course was the cake we bought from across the street for dessert.  The inside was chocolate.  The berries were covered in a sugar glaze.

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Eating only took a couple hours.  Then we poured grappa, vin santo and herbal digestivi while sitting around talking.  The Italian election is coming up; politics was one of the topics, as was Star Wars, Clint Eastwood, the new marajuana laws in Washington State and the Mafia in Perugia.  By midnight Cristiano left and we started cleaning up.  We had a huge mess.  The leftovers barely fit in the fridge.  We will be eating soup for a couple days, but that’s okay, because, like I said, I’m really into it right now.  In case anyone wants to try it, I’ll leave the recipe below.  God, I hope it turns out tasting good even outside of Italy.

Here's what you'll need.  Plus several cups of short pasta

Here’s what you’ll need. Plus about 1/2 lb. of short pasta

Pasta e Fagioli serves 6

2 cups dried cranberry beans

4 oz guanciale

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 onion (plus and optional 1/2 onion for the beans)

2 medium carrots

2 medium stalks of celery

4 oz. smoked, diced pancetta

8 cups or more of vegetable, chicken or meat broth

salt and pepper

Begin the day before by covering the beans in water and soaking them for at least 24 hours.  Two hours before you start the soup, begin simmering the beans in a pot of water.  You can add a little flavor by adding half an onion or some garlic to the pot.  Cook for a couple hours or until the beans taste done.

When you are ready to cook the soup, cut the guanciale into small pieces.  Fry it in a pan over low heat with a tablespoon of olive oil for 5-10 minutes.  Before it browns, add the finally chopped onion, celery and carrots.  Cook together until the vegetables are very soft.  Then add a cup of broth and cook until the liquid has evaporated.  Meanwhile, in a second pot over low heat, cook the pancetta in a tablespoon of olive oil.  After about 10 minutes, but before the pancetta crisps, add the cooked, drained beans.  Mix them together and then add the broth.  Let the beans absorb the broth for a bit then add the guanciale/vegetable mixture and cook together for 5 minutes.  In a separate pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta for half the recommended time.  Then drain and add the pasta to the beans and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Add salt and pepper if you need.