Pasta e Fagioli

As Dean Martin would croon, “When the stars make you drool, just like pasta fazool, that’s amore.

From the minute I buy a cooked ham, I start thinking about the soup I’m going to make with the leftover ham bone. The soup I love to make with that ham bone is Pasta e Fagioli, AKA pasta and beans, a classic Italian comfort soup. And, once I start making the soup, forget it, I start humming Dean Martin’s song, That’s Amore. Ad nauseam.

I usually pick up a spiral-cut ham to have in the house for sandwiches during the holidays.  This Easter, I didn’t have a full house or a ham, but it is so automatic for me to make (and want) a hearty ham bone soup after a holiday that I drove to our local Honey Baked Ham store Monday morning to see if they had any ham bones for sale in their freezer. I was in luck, they were having one of their post-holiday buy-one-get-one-free sales, and I was able to pick up two meaty bones for seven dollars.

Technique Time: How to Add Layers of Flavor to a Soup
One of the cooking techniques I’ve learned over the years is the benefit of slowly sautéing chopped vegetables and aromatics in olive oil to create a flavorful foundation for soups, sauces, and stews.

Depending on who taught you how to cook, this flavor base is known as a soffritto, a mirepoix, or the “Holy Trinity.” For example, the French flavor base is called a mirepoix and includes two parts onion to one part celery and one part carrot, all of it chopped and sautéed in butter or duck fat. The Italians start with a soffritto that includes carrots, onions, and celery often with the addition of garlic, fennel, and parsley, and all of it sautéed in olive oil. In Cajun cooking, they have the “Holy Trinity” which consists of 3 parts celery, 2 parts onion, and 1 part sweet bell pepper, all of it sautéed in butter or oil. It is helpful to know these ratios as you start to create your own recipes.


When making soups and even tomato sauces, you can add another layer of flavor by being intentional about what you use for the soup’s liquid base; the soup’s medium for flavor and heat. When you add raw or pre-roasted meat bones and simmer for a while, the bones’ marrow is released into the soup, and now you have enriched your soup or sauce even more.


Finally, when making soup, you can add yet another layer of flavor to the vegetables you choose to use, such as the stewed tomatoes, beans, and fresh greens I used in this recipe.


When you use this many layers of flavor, you’ll find you need to add a lot less salt, if any, to your recipe. I didn’t add salt to this soup because there is already plenty of it in the ham and cheese rind.

A few words on the main ingredients used to make Pasta e Fagioli.

The Beans
I start with a 20-ounce package of dried beans. The package comes with a seasoning packet that I have never used. In a pinch, you could use three cans of cooked beans, rinsed and drained.


Take a moment to admire how pretty the beans look as you rinse and inspect them for tiny rocks and dirt. I love the different shapes and textures.


Their color intensifies when rinsed, reminding me of pebbles rolling on the beach with the waves.


You will need to soak the beans for a few hours to soften them, and then partially cook them before you start making this soup.

The Ham Bone
Recently, I happened to be at my favorite meat market, Hampton Meats, in Hopkinsville, KY on the day they were butchering a pig. I’ve been there on days when half of a cow was hanging there, too. There is nothing like seeing an animal carcass hanging on a hook to make you take a moment to reflect on the source of your food.  I have a copy of the “Meat Reference Manual” issued in 1942 by the U.S. Army for mess sergeants. I like the graphics of their meat charts and refer to them often.

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Have you ever wondered why, when you get to the end of a spiral cut ham, getting the meat off the bone is no longer easy or pretty? It’s because the pig’s bulky ball and socket hip-joint are hidden in there. I dissect so you don’t have to.

DSC_0703 hip joint

The Greens:
Many of the cool weather greens growing in my backyard kitchen garden right now, such as kale, cabbage, chard, and spinach are suitable to use in soup because their leaves are thick and won’t disintegrate in the soup like lettuce would do. In the photo on the left, I’m growing “Alcosa” cabbage, a sweet and tasty variety of cabbage. I use the leaves while they are still young rather than letting them grow into a ball. In the picture on the right, I am growing “Winterbor” and “Red Russian” kale and “Bright Lights” chard. All will work well in this soup. Other choices that would work are spinach, collards, and escarole.

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20-ounce bag of dried beans, picked over and rinsed
5 stalks celery (1/2 pound), finely chopped
4 carrots (1/2 pound), finely chopped
1 large onion (1 pound), finely chopped
1 small head garlic (1 ounce), finely chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cooked and meaty ham bone, trimmed of visible fat
2 cans “Italian Recipe” stewed tomatoes, puréed first
½  of the heel of a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 whole bay leaves
12 cups water (3 quarts)
8 cups greens: cabbage, kale, chard, spinach (greens optional)
1 box ditalini pasta

Mise en Place:

1. To cook dried beans: Place rinsed beans in about 10 cups of water. Do not add salt to the water. Bring to a rapid boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1½ hours. They should still be somewhat firm, but edible. Drain and set aside.

2. Pull some of the meat off the ham bone to use to sauté the soffritto. Set aside.


3. Add olive oil to a large frying pan and get it started heating up. Next, add the soffritto, the carrots, onions, celery and garlic and pieces of ham. Sauté over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, frequently stirring, while vegetables become translucent and very lightly browned.

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In a large soup pot add the sautéed soffritto, the partially cooked beans, the ham bone, the 12 cups of water, the puréed stewed tomatoes, the cheese rind, and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once the soup comes to a boil, turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally. Test the beans to make sure they are cooked before adding the greens.


Add the greens.

Cook for five more minutes. Turn heat off and remove soup pot from the hot burner.

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Pull the ham bone out of the pot and place it on a cutting board. Pull the meat off the bone, cut it into bite-sized pieces, and return the meat to the pot.

Cook the pasta:
Put a pot of salted water on the stove top to cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. I never cook pasta directly in the soup because it drinks up all the soup’s liquid. Store the cooked pasta in a separate container from the soup, so the noodles do not become mushy.

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To serve soup, put a scoopful of ditalini in each bowl, top with soup, and pass the grated Reggiano cheese!


Or, serve it without pasta.



Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs

My high-spirited Great Aunt Bridget was the original #nofilter. Always, words were coming out of her mouth that caused us to look at one another as if to say, Did she really just say that? She had a memorable look, too: her hair was always done up, her dresses were colorful, and she rocked the cat-eye glasses look. She was comfortable in her own skin. AND, she made a great pot of chicken soup. Between the things she said, the clothes she wore, the bouffant hairdos, and the food she cooked, Aunt Bridget was memorable. And, loved. What more could we each want?

Jerome Bridget - Version 2

She and her husband, Uncle Jerome, both immigrants from Sicily, owned successful side by side businesses on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore — Bridget’s Beauty Shoppe and Jerome’s Barber Shop. They created an interior doorway between their adjoining buildings so they and their customers could visit one another all day. It was a happening place. As a little girl, I loved to sit under the hairdryer hood and basque in the attention of my aunt as she paraded her loyal customers by my chair so they could meet her grandniece.

In this photo from 1963, Aunt Bridget is standing at the forefront of her salon wearing a white uniform, and Uncle Jerome is in the back in his barber’s shirt. Aunt Bridget employed a dozen full-time “operators.” They were her girls, and they were busy. This was when women went to the beauty parlor weekly to get their hair washed and set. Upstairs from the shop, Aunt Bridget had a kitchen where she and her niece, Theresa, fed everyone — either chicken soup or spaghetti and meatballs.


One year, in the mid-1970s, I visited my grandparents in Florida during Easter break; so did my Aunt Bridget. In the whirlwind that signaled her arrival from the airport, my aunt walked into the kitchen, opened her purse, and pulled out an “old hen,” complete with its collagen-laden feet. She announced she was going to make a pot of soup. Her nephew had brought her by the Fell’s Point Farmers Market in Baltimore to get the hen on the way to dropping her off at the airport. I regret now that I spent more time rolling my 19-year-old eyes than looking for a pen and paper to write down her soup recipe; it was the best. I have spent years trying to recreate it.

What was so memorable about Aunt Bridget’s soup was the broth’s full-bodied flavor and the light, bite-sized meatballs that floated on the surface.

In my early attempts at recreating her broth, I was left with either perfectly cooked chicken in a thin stock that had to be boosted with a bouillon cube or a great tasting stock with tasteless, limp meat. Eventually, I figured out a way to have both rich stock and tasty meat. I simmered the soup for sixty minutes, removed the chicken thighs, pulled the meat off the bones, set the meat aside, and returned the bones to the stockpot to simmer for a few more hours.

About the Ingredients

My mother taught me to use chicken thighs when making soup. As the mother of seven children, she worried about us choking on small bones, so using whole chicken breasts with ribs attached was out. That was fine with me because I love the taste of thigh meat.

Bones, cartilage, and connective tissue contain a protein called collagen. As the bones simmer in water, the collagen breaks down, and once chilled, congeals into gelatin. This gelatin is your goal in broth-making. If the broth is not cooked long enough or is too dilute, it will not gel up like this.

chicken broth

The aromatic vegetables used to flavor a stock are known as mirepoix (pronounced “MEER-pwah”). The standard French mirepoix consists of 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery. Other aromatics I use are garlic and parsley.

bridget's chicken soup

Now to get started! First, we’ll make the broth, then the meatballs, and then add the greens.

To Make the Broth

Chicken stock ingredients:
8 pounds chicken thighs, with skin and bones
5 quarts cold water
1 large unpeeled onion (1 pound), quartered
⅓ head celery, with leaves (½  pound)
4 unpeeled carrots (½ pound)
6 cloves unpeeled garlic (½ ounce)
10 whole stems Italian flat-leafed parsley
3 fragrant bay leaves
1 teaspoon black pepper, or about 20 twists of the pepper grinder
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Yield: 4 quarts of chicken stock

Rinse and drain chicken. Put in a large stockpot.

bridget's chicken soup

Cover with cold water. If you start with hot water, the stock could become cloudy. Bring ingredients to a simmer. Remove foam as it forms.

aunt bridget's chickens soup

Prep the mirepoix: wash unpeeled vegetables and cut into large chunks. Add to stockpot. Add seasonings: bay leaves, garlic, parsley, and pepper. I do not add salt until I decide how I’m going to use the broth.

bridget's chicken soup

Add the vinegar. Acids such as vinegar or lemon juice help break down cartilage and pull nutritious minerals like calcium out of the bones.

Bring stock to a gentle simmer and cook for 60 minutes. A hard boil will make the stock cloudy.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the thighs. Once cool enough to touch, pick off the meat and refrigerate until later.

bridget's chicken soup

Return bones, cartilage, and skin back to the stockpot. Simmer for a minimum of 5 hours. Strain through a colander positioned over a large container.

To get a couple more cups of flavorful stock, put the solids from inside the colander back into the stockpot. Add about 3 cups of hot water and stir. Run the solids and stock through the colander again, collect the stock, and add to the saved container of stock. Discard solids.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve to clarify it further.

Refrigerate stock until fat rises to the top and hardens. Use a spoon to scrape it off.


To Make the Meatballs

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bridget soup

Yield: 70 small meatballs

1 pound of ground meat. (I use a package of combined beef, pork, and veal when I can find it.)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese
¾ cup unseasoned bread crumbs
zest from 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
2 tablespoons water

Mise en Place for Meatballs:
Grate the Parmesan cheese.

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To learn how to make your own bread crumbs, go here, or buy plain, fine bread crumbs.


Zest a lemon.

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Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix gently until just blended– less than 30 seconds.

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Use a melon scoop to make bite-sized meatballs. Place on a 13″ x 18″ rimmed sheet pan. The meat mixture weighed 1½ pounds. From that, I made 70 meatballs. Set aside.

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Prep the Greens

I used spinach because I have so much of it in my garden. Otherwise, escarole or endive would be my first choice. Wash the greens. If leaves are large, chop them.


Putting It All Together

bridget soup

4 quarts chicken stock, homemade or boxed
1 pound fresh spinach
About 70 uncooked bite-sized meatballs
1 pound cooked small pasta, such as ditalini, cooked separately

Bring the pot of chicken broth to a boil in a soup pot. Add the meatballs. Simmer for about 15 minutes.

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Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the greens.

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Serve immediately while greens are still brightly colored. bridget soup

Sprinkle with freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan. If desired, serve over pasta cooked separately. Do not cook the pasta in the broth — it will soak up most of the liquid.

bridget soup

Only the most memorable great-aunts get chickens named after them! Our two Rhode Island Reds were named Bridget and Josephine (my grandfather’s sisters who had reddish-brown hair). The two blonde Buff Orpingtons were named after my husband’s blonde grandmothers, Mildred and Alice. The two black and white Plymouth Barred Rocks were named after my silver and black-haired grandmothers, Marion and Concetta.

Aunt Josephine and Aunt Bridget flank their older brother, my grandfather, at my wedding. They were the last of the thirteen Giordano siblings.

Other Soups
Chicken Stock from Rotisserie Chicken Bones
Mrs. Lombard’s Portuguese Kale Soup
Pasta e Fagioli, aka Pasta and Bean Soup
Award-Winning Buffalo Chicken Chili
Kelly’s Duck Stew

Other Family Favorites
Baked Ziti with Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Marinara Sauce
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
Rapini and Fettuccini
Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies


Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram @JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.