Italian Pasta and Bean Soup
2 smoked ham hocks
2 quarts water
1 cup dry white beans, such as Great Northern
1/8 pound (2 ounces) fat back
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
4 large cloves garlic, chopped (more, if desired)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dried tubular pasta, such as ditalini, elbows or small shells
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cook the ham hocks in 2 cups water until tender, about 2 hours. Remove meat from bones, disgarding fat, and chop. Reserve liquid.
In a 4-quart saucepan, bring beans and 2-quarts water to a boil for 2 minutes. Remove from burner and let soak, covered, for 20 minutes. Drain beans, reserving liquid and adding enough fresh water to the liquid to make 2 quarts.
Meanwhile, chop fat back, onions, celery and garlic into a paste (called a battuto); this can be done with a large chef's knife or in the food processor. Heat olive oil in a large kettle over medium heat. Add the battuto and cook until the fat is completely rendered and just starting to turn golden, about 10 minutes, being careful not to brown. Add the beans, reserved bean cooking liquid, ham and ham cooking liquid to the kettle. Bring to a boil, reduce and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Skim fat from top of soup, but not all. (Can be prepared to this point several hours before serving or several days and refrigerated.)
Before serving, bring soup back to a boil; add pasta and simmer, covered, until tender, about 10 minutes, depending on pasta used. (If soup appears too liquid, remove the lid; if soups appears too thick while pasta is cooking, add extra liquid.) Taste for seasoning. Serve immediately, passing Parmesan cheese.