Pasta Fagioli with fresh breadsticks, basil and shredded parmesan cheese. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pasta Fagioli with fresh breadsticks, basil and shredded parmesan cheese. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

This soup makes for a hearty and healthy weeknight supper

Pasta e fagioli, a traditional Italian dish, is a fast and easy way to feed a family.

I don’t speak Italian, so I’m probably not pronouncing it right.

I’m referring to my recipe for an Italian soup that translates to “pasta and beans.” No matter how I pronounce or spell it, it’s become my go-to winter soup.

It’s healthy, it’s hearty, it warms you right up. And most of the ingredients are pantry staples, so I can make a large pot of it in about 45 minutes.

If you’re in the mood for a hearty Italian soup that’s simple to make, you gotta try this: pasta e fagioli.

Like many Italian favorites — even pizza and polenta — the soup started as a peasant dish. Which is why you’ll turn to your pantry when you’re looking to make it.

Most pasta e fagioli recipes are made with small pasta, white beans, minced garlic, stewed tomatoes and tomato paste. More on that later.

Let’s get into that name first. The soup has many different names because the word for “beans” varies in Italy — pasta fagioli is standard Italian. If you’re Neapolitan, you’d call it pasta fasule and, if you’re Sicilian, then you’d pronounce it pasta fasola.

It’s also been Americanized, so sometimes you’ll see it as pasta fasul (or fazool), which is derived from its Neapolitan name.

Luckily, pasta translates to just “pasta.”

If you do a search online for the soup, you’ll find that the recipes out there vary even more than the spelling of its name. Why is that? Because the only true requirement is that pasta and beans are included.

Most recipes call for cannelloni, borlotti or Great Northern beans. As for the pasta, it’s traditionally made with either elbow macaroni or ditalini.

After the pasta and beans, the variations are myriad. I’ve seen recipes that add in diced onion, celery and carrot. Others include spinach, kale, bok choy and escarole. Some variations swap the tomato paste for chicken or beef broth. Some recipes are vegetarian, while others call for Italian sausage, bacon or pancetta.

My recipe calls for Great Northern beans, seashell pasta, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken broth, fresh spinach and basil, minced garlic and crispy bacon.

I make my soup with canned Great Northern beans, although you can cook your own from dried. If you’re cooking your own, you’ll need four cups of cooked Great Northern beans for the recipe.

If you go with canned, be sure to drain and rinse them in a colander. Rinsing them in cold water makes the beans easier to digest.

I recommend baking your bacon in the oven, because it’s actually easier than frying it in a pan.

To bake bacon, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place 6-8 strips of bacon on the sheet. Be careful not to overlap the bacon. Bake for about 20 minutes or until crispy. No need to flip the strips! Transfer cooked slices to paper towels to absorb excess grease. When cooled, slice the bacon into bite-sized pieces.

I like to keep it easy when I’m prepping fresh basil. The easiest way to chop basil? Don’t. Just tear it.

But if you want to chop it, then here’s what you do: stack, roll and slice. Stack the leaves on top of each other, roll them into a cigar shape and, with a very sharp knife, slice the leaves into thin ribbons.

As for the spinach, I like to pick up bagged baby spinach because it’s ready to go. It’s already washed, I don’t have to trim the stems and I don’t have to chop the leaves. Much easier.

A note about those leafy greens: Fresh is best, but if you’re in a pinch (and you have it in your pantry), dried basil and frozen or even canned spinach will do.

I also like to buy shaved Parmesan rather than shredded cheese for the garnish. It makes a peasant soup seem fancy.

I served the pasta e fagioli to colleagues at The Daily Herald to see if they liked it as much as I do.

“Everybody needs a simple, hearty soup recipe in their back pocket — something they can whip up for the family on Wednesday night using pantry staples,” said Mark Carlson, who leads The Herald’s page layout desk.

“This one will satisfy anyone, even kids. It won’t cost much in time or money. And it’s just the thing for a winter night.”

As he ate, Carlson thought of ways to elevate the soup from its peasant status: “I’d make it with homemade chicken stock and add more fresh herbs — rosemary, thyme and/or oregano.”

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; sbruestle@heraldnet.com; @sarabruestle.

Pasta e fagioli

Make this soup vegetarian by swapping the chicken broth for vegetable and skipping the bacon.

1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 29-ounce can tomato sauce

2 15-ounce cans great Northern beans, rinsed

2 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth

2 cups water

1 teaspoon minced garlic (from 2 cloves)

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 teaspoon garlic powder

salt and black pepper to taste

6 ounces cooked bacon slices (from 12 strips)

12 ounces chopped spinach

8 ounces seashell pasta

1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil, plus more for garnish

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese for garnish

In a large stockpot, combine all of the ingredients except for the spinach, pasta, basil and cheese. Bring the soup to a boil. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the spinach, followed by the pasta, and cook uncovered until the leaves are wilted and the shells are tender, or about 10 minutes. Put the basil in last, reserving some for garnish. Season to taste.

Top each bowl with the Parmesan cheese and chopped basil. Serve with a salad and crusty Italian bread or breadsticks.

Makes 8-12 servings.

— Adapted from www.simplerecipes.com

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