Today is the 103rd anniversary of the birth of my grandfather, Leonardo Antonino Maggio. He and my grandmother, Grazia Siracusa, had a mixed marriage: the Maggios were from Salemi (province of Tràpani), and the Siracusas were from Mineo (province of Catania)! Two different sides of Sicily!
One of my absolute favorite dishes that my grandmother made was pasta e fagioli, prepared without tomatoes. A masterpiece of the cucina povera, the dish has such a grand flavor that you won't believe how simple the recipe is.
1 lb pasta (I prefer pasta mista, mixed pasta)
extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion (or 1/4 large onion), cut in small pieces
2 garlic cloves, whole
1.5 stalks celery, cut in small pieces
1 head of escarole, cleaned very well, the leaves cut in 2 (or in 4 if you prefer)
2 or 3 cups water from the pasta
16 oz. cannellini beans, already cooked (the ones from the can are perfectly fine; just rinse them well)
crushed red pepper
freshly-ground black pepper
freshly-grated Sicilian pecorino (or any pecorino from Rome or south)
In the oil, fry the onion, garlic, and hot pepper for 3 minutes. Add the celery and cook for another 3 minutes. Add a cup of the water, then the escarole, a little salt (there's already salt in the water), then another cup of water on top. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the cannellini and cook for another 10 minutes (15 minutes total from the time you added the escarole). Keep an eye on it; if it gets too dry, add another cup of water. Shut the flame, add a little more oil if you like, and buon appetito! Add the pecorino at the table.
My grandmother never made pasta mista. But I ADORE it with pasta e fagioli. I didn't have any in the house, so I made my own by hand (with the help of my sons!). For the beans, my grandmother used lima beans. I strongly prefer cannellini, the classic beans for Southern Italian pasta e fagioli.
Note that the aluminum strainer that I use that you see in the second photo shown below was a wedding gift to my grandparents in 1934. Until her death 65 years later, it was the only strainer she used. All of those Christmases and Easters, all with that historic strainer. Imagine!