No one knows the exact history of this soup, except that my mother’s family has been making it for a long time. Whether my grandmother or her mother or some previous generation originated the recipe I am not sure, but it has since been passed down through my mother to my sisters and me. It’s something like what Americans think of as “Tuscan bean soup” or “pasta e fagioli”: a rustic, inexpensive but filling soup of homemade pasta, vegetables, and beans. The perfect meal for those days when you’re short on cash or abstaining from meat. Or if you just feel like a hug from your grandma who may not be around anymore…
Some of my most vivid memories of visits to my grandparents’ farm in Northwest Arkansas are of this soup. We always arrived late in the evening, and Grandma always had a pot of soup keeping warm on the stove for us. As we groggily stumbled through the door, disoriented by the long car ride, the first thing I would notice was the familiar aroma of Grandma’s soup. Sitting around the table with a hot bowl of soup and a few saltine crackers or a slice of homemade bread was the perfect welcome.
The first time I ever made this soup was during my junior year of undergrad, about two years after my grandmother had passed away. I remember standing over the stove in a townhouse I shared with two friends, waiting for the soup to come together. The moment that familiar smell hit my nose, it brought me to tears. It’s still one of the most significant cooking moments of my life. I remember thinking how amazing it was that something so simple could be so powerful, that the aroma of this soup could affect me so deeply and make me feel like I was right back in Grandma’s kitchen.
Even now it brings back so many memories: My adult relatives crowded around the table after dinner playing cards and my grandmother’s laugh. Snipping fresh green beans on the front porch with Grandma. Picking blackberries for cobbler. Exploring the “timber.” Tractor rides. Getting unexpectedly snowed in and Grandpa building us a sled from scratch. Playing on bales stacked to the top of the hay barn in the late Fall and our disappointment in finding the barn empty come Spring.
There’s certainly a part of me that longs for those days. I would appreciate so many things about my grandparents’ way of life so much more now. Vegetables came straight from the garden, and those that weren’t eaten fresh my grandma canned for the winter. Grandpa’s cows grazed freely in large, open pastures. The recent movement towards eating locally and reports on the significant health benefits of grass-fed beef make me think of the farm. Whenever I succeed in doing something like not buying bread in over a month (baking it myself), I feel that in some small way, I am closer to them and the spirit of simpler times. Maybe someday I’ll even have a vegetable garden of my own.
Pasta e Fagioli alla Nonna (Grandma’s Soup)
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cans cannellini beans*, undrained
3-4 chicken bouillon cubes (I use 3-4 tsp. “Better than Bouillon”)
2 medium potatoes**, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
~1/3 cup ketchup
Homemade pasta (about 3 cups)
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of oregano
In a large soup pot heat 2-3 tbsp olive oil. Sauté onion, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, mash 1 can of beans with a potato masher or fork. (This will make for a nice, thick broth!)
When onions are translucent, add mashed beans and 4 cups water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Add chicken bouillon, stir to dissolve. Add vegetables and second can of beans. Stir in ketchup and a dash of oregano.
Cook until vegetables are tender.
Add pasta and cook about 10 minutes more.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
* My grandmother used something called “horticulture beans,” but since they are not easy to find, cannellini, great northern, and pinto beans (or a combination of the above) can be used.