Maggie Grello Cohen, a newly retired teacher, lives in Brightwaters with her two sons, husband and parents.
How long have you been making pasta fagioli?
This recipe was passed down from my grandmother. I learned how to make it by watching my mother make it. My maternal grandparents owned a restaurant on the water in Amityville. It was mostly Continental food. But at their home two blocks away, the food was very traditional Italian. My grandmother taught me how to make gnocchi, cavatelli. When I was in my teens, my mom formally brought me into the kitchen and taught me how to cook so I could help her. Every so often I’d bring a pot of pasta fagioli to school and feed the class. It became my trademark. It’s just beans and pasta, but if you take your time and make it with love, it is impressive.
And now you cook for your parents every night? And two of my grown children. Every night there are six mouths for dinner. My mom and dad raised me and my siblings here, and then my husband and I moved back in with them and brought up our own kids here. We’re a multigenerational family living under one roof.
Do you like to give cooking parties?
I was a teacher for 34 years, the last 30 at Bay Shore High School. I was a big sister to all these young teachers. I used to have them over for cooking demonstrations. Then I started inviting people over again, to make my parents happy. We’re Italian. On Sunday they would ask, “Who is coming over?” What is there to look forward to if there is not a meal? So I invite people about once a month. My father was the local pediatrician and people around here love to go to Dr. Grello’s home. I show them how to make something, and then we eat. I’ve had a pasta fagioli party, meatball madness, all kinds of things.
And you are working on a cookbook?
One of my sons gave me a book where I handwrite recipes. I have about 24 recipes so far. It’s arduous because I don’t cook that way, with exact amounts. And I don’t really teach that way. I don’t like to over-instruct.
What kind of recipes are in your book?
Zucchini and onions over linguine, two kinds of tomato sauce, pasta with cauliflower, lentil soup, chicken cacciatore. A lot of vegetarian food, a lot of healthy recipes. And I have a Facebook page devoted to cooking (on Facebook I’m Maggie Grello). I’ll put recipes up there along with photos and videos from my parties.
Are you passing down your recipes to your children?
My kids cook a little bit. My daughter has about five or six meals she can impress people with. My son would make chicken cutlets, pasta with peas and bacon, at college. And they get a kick out of what I’m doing, the cookbook, the parties. They see my Facebook presence and love it.
PASTA FAGIOLI (OR “FAZOOL”)
Cooking the pasta right in the soup thickens it. For a less starchy soup, Grello Cohen suggests boiling the pasta separately in a pot of water before adding it to the soup. Or thin the soup to the desired consistency by adding water or broth after the pasta is cooked.
1⁄3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
4 ribs celery, diced
8 to 10 cloves garlic, sliced
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon oregano
1⁄3 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
1⁄8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
2 (29-ounce) cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound ditalini or small pasta shells
Grated Locatelli Romano cheese for serving
1. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over low heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and sauté until softened, 20 to 30 minutes, adjusting the temperature so the vegetables don’t brown.
2. Add tomatoes, broth, salt, oregano, pepper and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
3. Add the beans to the mixture. Stir in the pasta and simmer until still al dente.
4. Allow to sit for 20 to 30 minutes, and expect the pasta to expand.
Adjust broth, salt and red pepper flakes, according to taste.
5. Spoon into large bowls and top with grated cheese and fresh
black pepper. Makes 8 to 10 servings.