Welcome to installment #3 of our Olive Garden Reproduction series: Pasta e Fagioli! By now you are probably--should probably--be asking yourself, "What's Irreverent Vegan's deal with the Olive Garden? It's not even that good!  And haven't they freaking been to Italy?! Don't they know better?!"

Man. You ask a lot of questions. But we have answers. Because that's how we roll.

Sadly, a lot of vegan cuisine is a matter of nostalgia; we attempt to capture some pleasant moment or time from our omnivorous past. For us, most of these moments revolve more around friends or family than the actual foods themselves. And the Olive Garden was one of those universal places that everyone in the family--no matter how mundane or adventurous their tastes--could get behind. Multiple families could come together there.

So these meals invoke a sense of love and belonging, if you'll forgive my brief foray into hippie territory. It's scarcely different when you crave mac and cheese. Think about it. It's not even that good. The idea is plain bad: cheese on noodles. It's no delicacy. But something draws you to it, over and over. Like pizza, it's one of the last vestiges to emigrate from your palate.

That being said, we took a slightly different approach this time. Instead of going for a straight reproduction of the Olive Garden's Pasta e Fagioli, we sought out some authentic recipes, cherry-picking and veganizing at will. We started with out friend Abigail's recipe. She should know what's awesome, since (a) she's an amazing cook, and (b) her hubbie's fambly is from (or lives/lived in Italy).

Her recipe centers heavily on the flavor of the white beans and the water they were cooked in (sorry! canned beans won't do for this recipe!). I'm guessing the parmesan cheese and tortellini made this sufficiently awesome for them. Ours seemed a little bland with just beans, bean juice, sage, S & P, and a few tablespoons of tomato paste. So. We added a large can of tomatoes (~4 cups), as well as some thyme and rosemary. After cooking down, this soup was pretty awesome. I've never had the OG version, nor an authentic Italian one. With some OG-style bread sticks, though, this soup is worth checking.

In case you were wondering, here's how:

Pasta e Fagioli

  • 1.5 cups uncooked white beans (ideally canellini, but any white bean will work)
  • 7 cups water
  • 4 cups (1 large can) tomatoes, with juice
  • 3 tsp ground sage
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 2 tsp fresh rosemary, diced
  • 1 - 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1.5 cup uncooked medium-sized shells
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Obviously, the first order of business is to cook the beans. We use a pressure cooker, but it's totally legit to soak the beans overnight, then cook them for about an hour. Unlike with our usual Choose-You-Own-Adventure-style recipes, you cannot opt for canned beans. You need to cook them. The bean water is your stock. This is how folks kicked it old-school, and how you'll need to kick it now.

In a large pot, saute the garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until the garlic is just beginning to brown. Add in half of the beans and all of the liquid. Blend with an immersion blender, or in a standard blender if you haven't gotten with the immersion blender program yet. Add the spices and tomatoes and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, start your noodles. Once the soup has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer. Once the noodles are done, drain, rinse briefly with cold water, and add to the soup. Salt and pepper to taste.

That's it!