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Pasta e Ceci

If you live in the New York City metropolitan area, you may have heard that a massive nor’easter is scheduled to arrive in town early tomorrow evening. It promises to be a cranky houseguest. Some forecasts have predicted up to THIRTY inches of snow between Thursday night and Sunday morning, which is when things will supposedly calm down.

It’s at times like this that a hearty, filling and restorative soup is just the thing you need, the better to cozy up to while there’s a raging bitter wind outside. Like its more famous cousins, minestrone and pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpeas) is truly Italian comfort food at its best.

It’s quite forgiving, as you can cook it several different ways, depending on whatever you might have in your pantry. I’ve made it a few times now in the past couple of months, and I feel like I’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface. Typically, the basic recipe contains pasta, chickpeas, garlic, rosemary and tomato. The versions I’ve had recently have all been “in bianco”, or without any tomato.

This dish is an excellent example where using water instead of stock is preferred. Did I hear some jaws drop? I think we’ve been so conditioned by the food media to automatically reach for stock or broth whenever we cook, that we go on auto-pilot without thinking. Water provides a blank canvas on which you can create. For something like pasta e ceci, I feel that vegetable or chicken stock would mask the flavors of individual ingredients, or overwhelm them. You want the pure taste of the vegetables, chickpeas, pasta and aromatics to come shining through. While using stock can be delicious, its intensity can be overpowering at times. Basically, you end up with puréed vegetable- or chicken-flavored soup. For further reading, you may find this discussion by Michael Ruhlman to be of interest. Though Michael is talking about the making of French onion soup, the principle is the same. Water is an essential ingredient that most cooks do not properly revere. I used to be one of them, but I’ve come around since then.

Ditalini e ceci (ditalini pasta ("little thimbles") and chickpeas)

Ditalini e Ceci

Pastina e ceci

Pastina e Ceci

Neither of the versions pictured above are vegetarian (because the battuto contained pancetta), but that doesn’t mean YOUR version has to be. Because of the nature of this dish, the format of the recipe below will be different from the usual. It’s intentionally “open-ended” so that you can customize the soup to your heart’s content, using whatever you might have on hand.

Begin with a battuto (minced onion, minced carrot, minced celery, minced celery leaves) cooked in olive oil over medium-low heat in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. The proportion of onion to carrot and celery should be (approximately) 1/3 onion to 2/3 carrot and celery. Some battuti contain pancetta, while others contain ham, lard, olives or leeks. The version pictured with ditalini had leeks in the battuto, while the one with pastina did not. Low and slow is the way to go. Once the battuto has softened considerably, the battuto will have become a soffritto. Be careful not to let the battuto (or the resulting soffritto) burn, or you may find that the resulting soup has a bitter undertone. You might have to stir occasionally to prevent the vegetables from scorching.

By cooking the aromatic ingredients slowly over time, you’re engaging in the process known as insaporire, where you’re building a dish by gradually adding layers of flavor. This step is critical, so don’t rush it. And really, why would you want to? The aroma of gently frying onion, carrot and celery is so delicious and enticing, that it’s a moment captured in time that I want to savor for the rest of eternity. This process will take some time; somewhere between 15 to 20 minutes is about right.

Meanwhile, prepare the pasta. Besides ditalini (“little thimbles”) or pastina, you can use conchiglette (“small shells”), orzo, or even broken pasta such as rigatoni (cover with a cheesecloth and smash with a kitchen mallet), or torn up pieces of pappardelle. If using dried pasta, be sure to slightly undercook the pasta since it will finish cooking once you add it to the soup pot.

Once the vegetables have softened to your liking, add the chickpeas, pasta and fresh herbs to the pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Herbs can include Italian parsley, sage, rosemary and/or thyme, along with sufficient water to cover. “Sufficient” will vary, but a good guideline is about 3 to 4 cups. The chickpeas can be canned or prepared from scratch. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let the soup simmer for 10 minutes. Depending on the type of pasta that you use, the consistency of the soup can be fairly liquid, or it can be thick, like porridge.

Taste for salt and pepper. Remove from heat, then serve at once. Top each serving with additional chopped fresh herbs, lashings of extra-virgin olive oil, and/or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Time: About 1 hour and 30 minutes, including prep. If you elect to use chickpeas prepared from scratch, add 8-12 hours soaking time and 2 hours cooking time.

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