How to Turn Beans Into a Creamy Vegan Pasta Sauce

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A simple pasta coated in a creamy, dairy-free sauce made from puréed chickpeas. Vicky Wasik

While Kenji is up to his ears coming up with great new ideas for his annual month of vegan eating, I'm remaining on a diet that includes meats and cheese.* But I noticed some folks asking for vegan bean recipes in the comments of his introductory article, and thought I might be able to help with that. (Plus, with all this great vegan stuff happening on the site, I don't want to be left totally out of the action.)

*So far, a lot of meat and cheese.

I have a passion for beans, which developed back when I used to cook for the Tuscan chef Cesare Casella. The Tuscans are famous for their beans (they're sometimes called the mangiafagioli—bean eaters—in Italy), and Cesare is no exception. When I worked for him, he'd import thousands of pounds of beans every year from Italy, and I learned plenty of tricks from him on how to use them.

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One of those tricks was this simple pasta with a sauce made from puréed beans, which I've made with chickpeas here. It couldn't be easier to make: You simply sauté some garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, add some cooked beans along with some of their cooking water, then purée it to make a smooth, creamy sauce. Add a handful of whole cooked beans for some texture, and you're basically done.

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Now, I know this may sound like a weird dish, but it's actually just an inversion of the Italy's classic pasta e fagioli soup, except the ratio of soup and pasta has been flipped. (It's also reminiscent of the starch-heavy, yet delicious, vegetable pasta sauce recipe I shared several months ago.)

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The bean-cooking water helps make a loose enough puree to coat the pasta.

I'll be honest—if left to my own devices, I wouldn't necessarily make this vegan. I'd finish it with grated Parmesan, and possibly melt some anchovies into the oil with the garlic and red pepper flakes. Those are nice touches, but they aren't necessary. This more simple vegan version has a wonderfully clean flavor that lets the beans shine through.

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That brings us to the beans. Yes, you can make this recipe with canned beans, and it'll be good. But with a dish this simple, each individual ingredient becomes much more important. For the best results, I implore you to cook dried chickpeas from scratch, adding aromatics like rosemary, garlic, and onion to the cooking water (and discarding them before proceeding with the recipe). You'll get much more deeply and richly flavored beans that way, and given that they're the backbone of the dish, that's kinda important.

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If you do cook your own beans, make sure they are fully cooked and creamy throughout, without any trace of graininess; don't worry if some fall apart; you're puréeing most of them anyway. In the case of chickpeas, that can take a loooooong time, so be patient and err on the side of overcooking them (or use a pressure cooker to speed things up). If you don't want to use chickpeas or have some other bean on hand, you'll be happy to know this recipe works with all sorts, from cannellini to cranberry beans.

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To finish the dish, I cook the pasta, then finish it in the bean sauce with a little of the pasta-cooking water added. Chopped parsley adds a fresh note.

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I also drizzle in some extra-virgin olive oil right at the end to get a boost of its fresh, uncooked flavor. A generous grating of black pepper also works wonders.

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Of course, if you decide to add some grated cheese, I won't snitch.