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January 14, 2014

Bay leaves (Recipe: pasta e fagiole) {vegetarian}

First published in December 2007, this updated ingredient post includes new photos, links, and tweaks to the recipe. Pasta e fagiole (called "pasta fazool" in some parts of New England) falls happily into the meal-in-a-bowl category. Make it ahead, and freeze it for easy worknight dinners; just add some crusty bread, a light green salad, and a glass of wine.

Pasta e fagiole (bean soup with pasta), from The Perfect Pantry.

In 1988, Richard Wilbur was asked in an interview whether, in his role as the United States' second poet laureate, he had to wear a laurel wreath. ''I wouldn't wear it outdoors because it would fall off when I played tennis,'' he answered, but he said that he might get a wreath made of bay leaves, which is a species of laurel. That way, he added, ''When I bowed my head to say grace, I could also season the soup.''

Bayleaves1

Odds are, that wreath would be made from Laurus nobilis, the variety of bay leaf native to the eastern Mediterranean, known to us as Turkish bay leaf, Greek laurel, or sweet bay. There are other varieties, most notably Umbellularia californica, native to western North America and often called California bay, which is much stronger in flavor than the Mediterranean variety. In ethnic markets you also can find Indonesian bay leaf (Eugenia polyantha), which looks like Mediterranean bay when fresh, but turns black when dried, and Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tejpata), which is more like cassia, with the aroma of cinnamon and cloves.

Bay leaves are integral to bouquet garni, a traditional French seasoning consisting of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf, tied together (if fresh) or wrapped in cheesecloth (if dried). Celery, garlic, fennel, orange peel, and marjoram are common additions to a bouquet garni.

I always assumed that the reason we buy bay leaves dried had to do with transportation and storage, but I learned recently that bay leaves, like most of us, mellow with age. You can use them right off the tree, but they will be more bitter than if they dry for a couple of days. When you buy completely dried leaves, store them in an airtight container for up to a year.

Next time you make gravy, which is what we Rhode Islanders call marinara sauce (and what my mother used to call spaghetti sauce), or chicken stock, or beef stew, make half the recipe with a bay leaf, and half without. Taste each batch. You won't say "ah, this one has bay leaf," but you'll taste the "without" batch and say, "oh, something's missing."

That's the funny thing about a bay leaf: You can hardly ever identify the flavor in a dish, but you can always tell if you've left it out.

Classic pasta e fagiole soup.

Pasta e fagiole

From the pantry, you'll need: olive oil, onion, garlic, vegetable broth, canned chopped tomatoes, ketchup, cannellini beans, dried pasta.

My cooking library harbors many strange and wonderful books. Gentlemen, Start Your Ovens: Killer Recipes for Guys, by Tucker Shaw, falls into both categories. Don't be fooled by the title; the author sets out to demystify cooking for everyone. This slightly-adapted recipe serves 4.

Ingredients

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Pinch of kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
1 bay leaf
4 cups vegetable stock or water
14 oz canned diced tomatoes, with their juice
1 Tbsp ketchup
15 oz canned cannellini beans
1/2 lb dried spaghetti, broken into pieces 3-4 inches long, or any stubby pasta like orzo (or any random bits of dried pasta in your pasta jar)
5 oz bag of baby spinach leaves
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for garnish (optional)

Directions

In a stock pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil.

Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the bay leaf, chicken stock, tomatoes and juice, ketchup and cannellini beans.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the pasta and simmer for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally to keep the beans from sticking.

Fish out the bay leaf. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the spinach, and stir to combine. As soon as the spinach wilts, the soup is ready.

Serve hot, sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese (optional).

(Note: like many bean soups, this one improves with age. It will be delicious on the first day, and better on the second.)

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More bean or pasta soup recipes:

Everything-from-the-pantry bean soup
Tomato, zucchini, white bean and basil soup
Black bean and peach soup
Pea soup with pasta and parmesan
Twisted Three Sisters Soup

More recipes that use these pantry ingredients:
Spicy, citrusy black beans, from Simply Recipes
Simple Navy bean soup, from Whipped
Pressure cooker vegetable soup with giant white beans, ham, and bay leaves, from Kalyn's Kitchen
16 bean soup, from Rachel Cooks
Pasta with bacon, onion, tomato and bay leaves, from Sweetnicks

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.

Comments

Sounds delicious. I think bay leaves are a magical ingredient in bean soups!

I love pasta e fagiole- this was a favorite of my grandmother - I can still her her voice calling us to a meal of it. Thanks for the rceipe I'm making it today.

Kalyn, I agree absolutely. Bay leaves in bean soups, bay leaves with meat soups, bay leaves with pasta. Love them!

Satonahat, what a lovely memory. I hope the taste of this soup is close to what you remember.

Love bay leaves! I use them in soups, sauces and my mom's goulash it is key. One tip is to make sure people remember to remove them before serving as they are a choking hazzard (Pierre Franey taught me that as a kid on PBS as he was threatened with a suit over it and stressed it and to always count them going in and out of the recipe to prevent accidents...) Can't wait to try your recipe!

If you're going to store it in the freezer or the fridge, I heartily recommend leaving the pasta out and adding it the day you are eating it. The pasta will continue to absorb the liquid and will swell and become mushy.

I have always wondered about bay leaves, for exactly the reason you give - I never taste it in the food! I think I will try the experiment you recommend - and meanwhile, I'll keep adding it because the recipes tell me to...

Ahhh my husband and I were just discussing this the other day. He asked if he really needed to use it in the red sauce he was making and I said no but he would miss it!

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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