Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A recipe for any recession

By Dick Hirsch

This is a column I never wanted to write, a topic I never wanted to deal with. In most cases, should you ever read that statement, you‘ll know that something dreadful has happened, perhaps a death, the diagnosis of a serious illness or some other subject that will be likely to cause an emotional response in even the most hard-bitten readers.

Such is not the case today. I long ago vowed to refrain from this discussion unless it became timely. For years the timing has not been appropriate, so I gladly kept the idea in the vault, hoping I would never have occasion to use with it. But conditions changed, going from exuberant to bad and maybe worse.

This is a hard times column, a subject that required saving for publication during a recession, or even worse, a time when people in every layer of society are impacted by business failures, layoffs, missed quotas, a sharply shrunken stock portfolio.

They are looking for ways to spend less, and attempting to conserve the family food budget. The food budget is my target. I propose you should be interested in a remarkably tasty, healthy and inexpensive Italian dish called pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans.

You probably have heard it pronounced or spelled as pasta fazoole, to rhyme with tool, but the spelling is of little consequence. My familiarity with Italian food was limited to spaghetti and pizza when I first heard of pasta e fagioli. I was a callow youth, by a peculiar set of circumstances assigned to cover City Hall. They still used hyphenated descriptions in those days so I can say that the mayor was proudly Italian-American. Many of his appointees were men of about his age and the same background, having grown up on the West Side. Now they were department heads and directors in the city government.

I noticed that almost without fail, each Friday many of them would arrange to meet for lunch, sitting at a big table in the back room of a place in the old neighborhood. Tony, Danny and Frank would always go, as well as Bobby, Nick, Joe, Sammy and others whose names I can’t recall.

The mayor was seldom able to join them because he was busy at some civic luncheon, but he made no secret of his desire to join his pals at Friday lunch.

“What’s the attraction at the place,” I one day asked Tony.

He stared at me the way people stare when they have just been asked a stupid question.

“It’s not the place, kid” he said. ”It’s the pasta e fagioli that they serve only on Fridays. We all used to hate it when we were young, but now we crave it.”

Those were men who were boys during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the things they remembered most clearly was that their mothers regularly served pasta e fagioli as a money saving dish. It was known as a meatless dish served on Fridays, but during the depression it was seen much more often.

“I would groan when I saw it,” Tony recalled. “Not again,” I would say. “It was the same at everyone’s house, all through the neighborhood. But it’s all different now. Our wives won’t make it, we eat steak, roast beef, fish and chicken, but now we are old enough to remember that dish. We hated it then, but we love it now.”

I joined them for lunch one day and had my first serving. I haven’t had it often enough since. Although it is beloved by many, it isn’t on menus in many restaurants, perhaps because it is economical. My wife, Lynn, always willing to try a new dish, prepared a pot full, using this recipe:

One can (14.5 oz.) stewed tomatoes, crushed in hand; one onion, chopped; four-five garlic cloves, minced; three-quarters cup of olive oil; one can garbanzo beans, not drained; one can butter beans, not drained. Put all the ingredients into pot and simmer for one and a half to two hours; cook one quarter pound of ditalini (truncated macaroni), drain and add slowly to the bean mixture. Add chopped parsley, salt, pepper and a touch of hot pepper flakes, then serve with grated Romano cheese. Serves four.

Forget about steak. Try this. It tastes great and fits nicely in the budget. I didn’t want to write this column, but I’m glad I did.



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