Why It Works
- The classic combination of beans and greens makes for an easy, hearty, and nutritious pasta sauce that puts pantry staples to good use.
- Bean cooking liquid (or stock) boosts flavor while starch from the beans and pasta water gives the sauce a creamy consistency without adding dairy.
- Garlic, anchovies, and dried chilies form a flavorful base for the sauce, along with a splash of white wine for acidity and subtle sweetness.
- Finishing the pasta in the sauce ensures the noodles are well coated and perfectly al dente.
Pantry and budget-friendly meals are always good to have in your cooking repertoire. This recipe, which features humble ingredients but standout flavor, is a great example. Beans and greens are a classic pairing in Italian peasant cuisine (as well as in many other cuisines from around the world), known as cucina povera ("poor cuisine").
Brothy cooked-from-dried beans and wilted hearty greens like Tuscan kale or chard, which can last for a long time in the fridge, together create dishes that are simple, quick, filling, and healthy. They can be served as a soup or stew, cooked down to a drier consistency to use as a topping for crusty grilled bread, or, in this case, combined with starchy pasta cooking water for a creamy, noodle-coating sauce.
Like most bean-centric dishes, you'll achieve the best flavor results using cooked dried beans along with the flavorful cooking liquid that canned beans fail to deliver. However, you can always use canned beans and store-bought stock instead, if you don't have the time or dried beans required for making a batch o' beans from scratch.
This pasta starts with garlic and anchovies, gently cooked in olive oil with a sprinkling of dried chilies for background heat. The anchovies give the sauce savory depth that you won't be able to discern in the finished dish but unequivocally make for a better sauce as we found in side-by-side tests. A splash of white wine lends sweet acidity before the beans are simmered to a saucy consistency.
The dish comes together with the addition of torn-up kale, short tubular pasta (we love paccheri for this sauce), and a healthy ladleful of starchy pasta cooking that all get cooked together with the beans until the greens are lightly wilted, and the noodles are al dente and perfectly coated in sauce. A sprinkling of salty, funky Pecorino Romano ties everything together for a comforting pasta easy enough for any weeknight but delicious enough to grace a table even on special occasions.
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 medium garlic cloves (20g), thinly sliced
- 3 anchovy fillets (5g) (optional; see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon (1g) red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup (60ml) dry white wine
- 1 pound 5 ounces (3 cups; 600g) cooked dry white beans (such as cannellini or Great Northern) or two (15-ounce; 425g) cans low-sodium white beans, drained and rinsed (see note)
- 1 cup (240ml) bean cooking liquid, homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock, or vegetable stock (see note)
- Kosher salt
- 12 ounces (350g) short tubular pasta, such as paccheri or rigatoni
- 1 bunch (8 ounces; 225g) lacinato kale, tough stems removed, leaves cut into 2-inch pieces (see note)
- 2 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup; 65g) grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided
In a large straight-sided sauté pan or skillet, combine olive oil, garlic, and anchovies (if using). Cook over medium-low heat, stirring and breaking up anchovies occasionally with a wooden spoon, until anchovies have dissolved and garlic has softened and is just beginning to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Increase heat to medium-high and add wine. Bring to a simmer and cook, swirling pan and scraping up any stuck-on bits with a wooden spoon, until wine has emulsified with olive oil and mixture is slightly reduced, about 30 seconds.
Add beans and bean cooking liquid (if using cooked dry beans) or stock (if using canned beans), and, using a wooden spoon, crush roughly one-quarter of the beans against the sides and bottom of pan. Stir well, season lightly with salt, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until bean mixture is thickened to a creamy, saucy consistency, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente and still uncooked in the center (about 3 minutes less than the package directions). Right before the pasta reaches this level of doneness, add the kale to the pan with the beans. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer pasta to pan with beans and kale along with 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 2 cups (475ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, 2 to 3 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. At this point, the sauce should coat the pasta but still be loose enough to pool around the edges of the pan; because of the starch in the beans and pasta water, the sauce will continue to tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve, so make sure it's a little looser than you would normally serve a sauce. Remove from heat, add 3/4 of grated cheese, and stir rapidly to incorporate. Season with salt to taste. Serve immediately, passing remaining grated cheese at the table.
Straight-sided sauté pan or large skillet, spider skimmer
Anchovies add savory depth to the sauce, but if you would like to keep this dish vegetarian, you can omit them. If you do choose to leave out the anchovies, we strongly encourage you to use cooked dry white beans and their cooking liquid rather than canned beans and store-bought stock; the difference in flavor between the two is even more noticeable when you remove the umami boost of the anchovies.
Cooked dry white beans produce the best flavor for this dish. You can follow our basic stovetop or oven methods for cooking beans, or if you have a pressure cooker, you can cook beans that way as well. For the beans used in the photos for this recipe, I pressure-cooked 1 pound (450g) rinsed dried cannellini beans with 7 cups (1.7L) water, 3 garlic cloves (lightly smashed), 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil, and 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) kosher salt on high pressure for 35 minutes, followed by a natural pressure release. While you don't have to soak beans if pressure-cooking, soaking can help some beans cook more evenly and consistently.
Use chicken or vegetable stock only if using canned beans. Use reserved bean cooking liquid if using cooked dry beans.
Lacinato kale is also known as Tuscan, dinosaur, or black kale. You can also substitute other hearty, toothsome greens such as Swiss chard for the kale.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This pasta is at its best when enjoyed immediately, but it does keep well for leftovers, too. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.