Happy pasta-and-bean season—that cold-weather gravitational pull toward belly-warming, low-fuss meals that can be mostly thrown together from pantry staples such as dried pasta and canned beans. In my kitchen, a lot of that cooking leans Northern Italian, because classics such as pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci check all the boxes: They’re economical (both icons of cucina povera), nutritious, quick to prepare, and brimming with savoriness. Plus, when I’m full up on holiday meal prep and eating, it’s just the kind of cozy food I want to unwind with.
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
Science: Full-Bodied Sauce Base
The water used to cook both dried pasta and legumes is liquid gold for sauce making. During cooking, the noodles’ starch and the beans’ polysaccharides and proteins leach into the water, giving it viscous, glossy body. We purposely cook the pasta in a small volume of water to make it extra-starchy and add lots of that water to the finished pasta; the sauce will look loose at first, but the abundant starch in the dish will absorb water and tighten it up nicely.
Lately I’ve been thinking of this pair less in terms of canonical dishes and more as a riffable formula, since neutral pasta and beans can be pulled in countless directions. Think: bacon, brussels sprouts, and mustardy bread crumbs; salmon, snow peas, capers, and dill; and a truly outside-the-box version with tomatoes, goat cheese, and red lentils in which the quick-cooking dried legumes break down and combine with the soft, tangy chèvre to coat the pasta.
Pasta and beans also have something powerful in common: full-bodied cooking liquid. Pasta cooking water gets its viscosity from starch and canned bean liquid from polysaccharides and protein. Along with a bit of dairy for extra body and richness, they form the base of my light, glossy sauces. In fact, I deliberately cook the pasta in a small volume of water to concentrate its starch—and conveniently that small volume of water comes to a boil quickly, which speeds the dish’s overall cooking time.