On the remote island of Sardinia, pasta e fagioli takes the form of a chick-pea, wild fennel, and pasta soup. Either the couscouslike pasta called fregula or a tubular soup pasta is used. Wild fennel is not available in America, but cultivated fennel can be substituted successfully. Also, because Sardinia is a land of shepherds, slivers of fresh pecorino are sprinkled over the bowls of soup just before they are served. (Parmigiano can be substituted for the pecorino.) Chick-peas are often very hard in their dried form, requiring longer soaking than other beans. They must be soaked overnight, or even longer, for best results. For a quicker dish, use canned chick-peas. Other beans such as cannellini, navy beans, or cranberry beans can be substituted. In the nonvegetarian version, a ham bone gives this soup a great deal of flavor. Its absence, however, allows the distinctive flavors of the other ingredients to shine.
Yield: For 6 people
2-½ cups(two 16-ounce cans) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large bulb fennel, stalks and fronds removed, halved, cored, and thinly sliced crosswise (about 2 cups)
3 tablespoons minced fresh fennel fronds
1 large boiling or baking potato, peeled and cut into small dice
2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped fresh or canned plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly milled black pepper
6 cups water, boiling
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste freshly milled black pepper
1 cup ditalini (“little thimbles”) pasta
¼ cup coarsely grated or shredded fior di Sardegna or other mild sheep’s milk cheese, plus additional cheese for the table
Rinse the chick-peas in cold water and drain. In a soup kettle over low heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, garlic, and the 2 tablespoons parsley; cover and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Remove the cover and add the fennel bulb and fronds and potato and sauté for an additional 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and then the chick-peas and boiling water. Stir well, cover, and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add the pasta and salt and continue to simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just tender, about 10 minutes longer. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Stir in the 1 teaspoon parsley and the ¼ cup cheese. Ladle the soup into individual bowls and serve. Pass additional cheese at the table.
VARIATION WITH ROSEMARY: To the tomatoes in the skillet, add 1 heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, then the salt and pepper. In a blender or with a potato masher, crush half of the chickpeas. Add them and the remaining whole chickpeas to the skillet with 7 cups of boiling stock or water. Stir in 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary. Proceed as directed in the recipe.
AHEAD-OF-TIME NOTE: The soup can be made in advance, but the pasta must not be added until serving time or it will overcook. Prepare the soup up to the point where the pasta is added. Cool, cover, and refrigerate the soup for 2 or 3 days. At serving time, cook the pasta and add it, the last 1 teaspoon parsley, and the cheese to the reheated soup. The soup also freezes well, as long as the pasta and cheese are not added beforehand.