Monday, March 24, 2008

Saint Joseph's Macaroni

March 19th is Saint Joseph's Day, and my Italian-American family always celebrated with a special dish. It is a holiday most often celebrated in southern Italy, and in many villages, altars made of bread were constructed to honor St. Joseph, who was a carpenter by trade. Also typical of the day are Sfingi (sweet ricotta filled pastries) and special meatless dishes (since the day typically falls during the Lenten season). Some families eat Pasta con Sarde (pasta with sardines), but my family always made a pasta dish with beans. We called it simply "Saint Joseph's Macaroni."

In the cooking classes I teach, I always tout the practicality of using canned beans, but in this case, I start from scratch with dried beans, just as my grandmother did. The upside of dried beans is that they are extremely inexpensive, last for ages in your pantry, and believed by many to be tastier than their canned cousins. The downside is that you need to plan far in advance, as most dried beans require at least 8 hours of soaking time and an additional 2-3 hours of cooking time. My mother once made a version with canned beans which was very good, but since I had all the dried beans on hand, I decided to stick with my grandmother's recipe again this year.

Saint Joseph's Macaroni uses three types of beans (red kidney, lentils, and split green peas) and three types of pasta (broken spaghetti, ditalini, and elbows). It also includes onions, fennel and spinach and results in a hearty, earthy dish that satisfies even the heartiest of appetites. Salt and olive oil ("2 ladles full", according to my grandmother's recipe) are added at the end, and are essential to the flavor of the dish. I've adjusted a few things here and there, but otherwise, the recipe is pretty close to the one I remember eating each year March 19th in honor of Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph's Macaroni
Serves 8

1/4 lb dried red kidney beans
1/4 lb split green peas
1/4 lb dried lentils
2 onions, chopped
1/2 bulb fresh fennel, plus the green fronds, chopped
1/2 lb pasta (combination of elbows, ditallini and broken spaghetti)
6 oz fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Sort through the beans, checking for stones, and then rinse thoroughly under cold water.
Place the kidney beans and split peas in a large bowl and cover with water by about 3 inches. Soak for 8 hours or overnight.
Drain beans in a collander and add to a large soup pot together with the lentils, chopped onions and chopped fennel.
Add 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Simmer for 2-3 hours, or until beans are softened.
Add the pasta and return to a boil. Continue cooking until pasta is al dente.
Add the spinach and stir to combine until it is wilted
Season liberally with salt and drizzle about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil into the dish.
Stir again, and serve hot.

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