I love Italian food, next to just good southern food, it's probably my favorite to both cook and eat. Unfortunately, in our city, which is actually very diverse to be in southern Kentucky, we lack what I would call good authentic Italian restaurants...you know those owned and ran by Italians. We do have Olive Garden, which I realize is not what you would call authentic Italian, but I still really love it. However, my family does not love it. My husband and my son, when he lived at home, didn't like to eat there. The only time I ate there was with my co-workers. We usually went at lunchtime and we loved to get their unlimited soup and salad special. The pasta fagioli was always a favorite. I actually get cravings for this soup. So, one day I decided to replicate it at home. There were some copycat recipes on the internet and I just started experimenting with them and adapted them until I think I got it down. The really funny thing is, my husband loves this pasta fagioli that I make at home, but says he doesn't like it at Olive Garden...makes no sense to me, but I will tell you what I think is the key difference as I go through the steps of making it.
I made this batch in the slow cooker, but you can make it just as easily in a dutch oven or soup pot on the stove. I also used ground beef, but if you like a little more spice you can use half ground beef and half Italian sausage. Here is what you will need:
1 1/2 - 2 lb. ground chuck
1 20 oz. jar of Spaghetti sauce ( I used Ragu Basil and Sundried Tomato, which is so good in this)
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning
4 beef bullion cubes
1 medium onion diced
1 Tbs. minced garlic
2 cups sliced celery (about 4 large stalks)
2 cups carrots cut in matchstick pieces or diced (about 4 carrots)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (or 2 tsp. dried)
1/2 cup chopped fresh oregano (or 2 tsp. dried)
1 15 oz. can white beans (Great Northern or Cannellini)
1 15 oz can light red kidney beans
1 tsp. garlic salt
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbs. brown sugar (this is the secret ingredient I add that Olive Garden probably doesn't)
dash of Tabasco (optional, leave it out if you don't like a little heat)
6 cups of water
8 oz. ditalini pasta (can use elbow macaroni if you can't get the ditalini, Bertolli makes a ditalini pasta)
Shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese for garnish
Brown the ground beef (ground beef and Italian sausage, onion and minced garlic in a skillet. Drain any excess grease.
Slice the celery and cut the carrots into matchsticks. You can purchase the carrots already cut like this if you short on time.
Place the ground beef in the slow cooker you have sprayed with nonstick spray for easier cleanup. Place the vegetables over the beef.
Add the spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, beans, all of the herbs and seasonings to the slow cooker and give it a stir. Add the bullion cubes and additional water and stir again. Set for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high. You won't need to do anything until the time is up. Prepare your pasta according the package directions minus 1 minute of cooking. Drain it and either add it to the soup or place 1/2 cup in a soup bowl and pour the hot soup over it. I like to serve it like this because the pasta stays al dente. With the left overs, I just add the remainder of the pasta to the soup and mix to store in the refrigerator.
I like to sprinkle the top of the soup with shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese and serve with hot bread sticks.
Cooking tip: I add brown sugar to this and to most any Italian red sauce I cook I add just a pinch of brown sugar or white sugar. It sort of cuts the tartness of the tomato sauce and I think it's why my husband and son like my Italian food better than some others they have eaten. It's not all that noticeable to anyone who doesn't know it, but you can tell when it's left out.