Hearty greens and beans with pasta

May 18, 2006 at 4:30 pm (A (4 stars, love, favorite), Alma's faves, Beans, Beans and greens, Cook's Illustrated, Cruciferous rich, Dark leafy greens, Derek's faves, Monthly menu plan: dinner, Pasta, Starches) ()

A big bowl of pasta, hearty greens, and beans can really hit the spot on those days when you’re just hungry. Plus, beans and greens are two of the most nutritious foods you can eat.  And beans, pasta, and greens make a great one-dish meal.  Yet there are numerous pitfalls that a chef trying to make this dish for the first time can fall into. Especially a vegetarian chef! Over the years, I’ve made variants that are quite bland, versions that are bitter, and even dishes in which the greens are either undercooked and crunchy or an overcooked putrid green color.  Below are my notes on how to make an excellent vegetarian version of beans and greens with pasta.

Hearty Beans and Greens with Whole Wheat Pasta


  • 2 Tbs. minced or pressed garlic (About 6 good-sized cloves. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s needed)
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil (plus optional extra for drizzling on top)
  • 1 jumbo or 2 medium onions, diced small (about 16 ounces of onions before peeling, to yield 2 cups of diced onion)
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes (original recipe calls for 1/2 tsp., but 3/4 tsp. was too mild for me, 1 tsp. was good, I still want to try 1.5 tsp. You can also add the chili pepper individually at the table.)
  • 25 kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped (original recipe calls for 6 ounces pancetta — I used olives instead. 25 kalamata olives is about 1 cup / 6 ounces before pitting and 4.75 ounces after removing the pits)
  • 1 pound already stemmed kale leaves, chopped into 1-inch pieces (see note below about how much you need to buy to get a yield of 1 pound)
  • 1.5 cups vegetable broth (or water if no broth is available)
  • 3/4 tsp. salt + salt for pasta water (Original recipe called for 1.5 tsp. salt!)
  • two 15-ounce cans of white beans or chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 3 cups or 500g of drained beans–Cook’s Illustrated recommends cannellini)
  • one 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (Optional, not in the original recipe. If you don’t use tomatoes you might want some lemon juice for a bit of acidity)
  • 8 to 14 ounces of whole wheat pasta, preferably fettuccine or linguine (Original recipe called for 26 1/2 ounces)
  • 3 ounces parmesan cheese, grated (about 1/4 ounce per 1 cup serving, for a total of almost 1 cup of grated parmesan. Original recipe called for 8 ounces of fontina.)
  • ground black pepper to taste


  1. Prep: Chop your garlic and dice your onion. Stem your kale and wash it. Pit and chop your olives. (All of these steps can be done in advance.)
  2. In a 5-quart pot, bring 3 to 4 quarts of water to boil over high heat.
  3. Heat dutch oven (I use a 6-quart cast iron dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when it’s hot, add the onion to the pan; cook until the onion is starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, olives, and red pepper flakes; cook, stirring, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. (Note: It’s fine to add the olives and red pepper flakes later.)
  4. Add half of the greens to the dutch oven and toss occasionally, until starting to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining greens, the broth, and 3/4 tsp. salt; cover. (Pan will be very full.) Increase heat to high and bring to a strong simmer. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, tossing occasionally, until greens are tender, about 15 minutes (mixture will be somewhat soupy).
  5. While the greens are cooking, add pasta the pasta and 1 Tbs. salt to the pot of boiling water; cook until pasta is just shy of al dente. Drain pasta and add it to the greens mixture along with the beans and canned tomatoes (if using), then toss to combine. Cook until pasta absorbs most of the liquid, about 2 minutes. Season with fresh black pepper. Serve immediately. Add parmesan and drizzle olive oil over individual servings.

Note on the amount of kale: You can get 1 pound of kale leaves from approximately 2 pounds of kale with stems. That’s equivalent to approximately 2 bunches, depending of course on the size of each bunch. After stemming the kale and tearing the leaves up a bit, they entirely fill my largest stainless steel kitchen bowl. When I washed 1 pound of kale leaves and poured out the excess water, but didn’t spin them dry, they weighed 1.5 pounds. When I blanched 1 pound of kale leaves, then drained out any water that pooled in the bowl, they weighed about 1.5 pounds. The original Cooks Illustrated recipe calls for 28 cups of loosely packed greens, which they say is about 2 to 3 pounds of kale or collards. I haven’t tried using collards recently, because I can’t get them in Germany.

My Notes

This recipe is adapted from a non-vegetarian recipe in Cook’s Illustrated (CI): Whole Wheat Pasta with Greens, Beans, Pancetta, and Garlic Bread Crumbs. CI says the key to full-fledged flavor is to simmer the pasta with the sauce for just a few minutes before serving.  According to CI, “this technique allows the pasta to absorb the flavors of the sauce and to release its residual starch, which helps to thicken the sauce slightly.”  I followed this technique, but I modified the recipe in a few ways. I reduced the amount of pasta substantially, upped the chili flakes, subbed veggie broth for the chicken broth, substituted kalamata olives for the pancetta, and skipped the garlic breadcrumbs entirely. The original recipe says it serves 8 to 12, but since I cut back on the pasta so much this only serves maybe 4 to 6 as a one-pot meal.

One crucial aspect of this recipe is making sure there’s not only enough salt, but that all the ingredients are individually salted enough.  The beans need to be cooked with salt so that the insides aren’t bland, and the pasta needs to be cooked in salted water.  If you blanch your greens, blanch them in salted water.  Whether you need to add salt will depend on how salty your broth and ingredients are.  If you’re on a low salt diet, I’d probably not recommend this recipe.

To avoid bitterness, either use a more mild green like collards or dinosaur kale, or blanch the greens briefly in the salted pasta water.  Ideally, you want your greens to be bright green and meltingly soft.  How to achieve that depends on the type of greens you’re using.

Cook’s Illustrated also has a similar recipe that calls for spinach, see my notes here.

Notes from Jan 18, 2018:

I made this for dinner tonight (without the tomatoes), and everyone (including almost 3-year-old Alma) liked it. I used 11 ounces of pasta and only 1 large jar of white beans (only 400g of drained beans rather than the 500g called for). I thought the recipe could have used a bit less pasta (just 9 or 10 oz) and more beans (the full 500g), but Derek liked the ratios. At least there was plenty of kale this time! It made enough pasta for all of us for dinner (with no side dishes) and we have a lot of leftovers–probably enough for one more dinner. So I’d say this makes 5 servings without sides, and maybe 8 if you have a side dish.

Notes from Dec 3, 2016:

I used two large bunches of dinosaur kale. After stemming it (but before washing it), it completely filled my salad spinner, and was sticking out the top some. We used 13.5 ounces of pasta, and the ratio was good. We used whole tomatoes rather than diced, and just broke them up with a spoon.

I’m not sure how long I cooked the kale for. I forgot about it and it ended up being very soft and kind of putrid green. But the dish still tasted really good. It was actually better than usual. Not sure why. But it had a really nice creamy sauce coating the pasta, and both Derek and I thought it was delicious. It made a lot too. Derek and I had it for dinner, then we had it for lunch with Alma the next day, and we still have probably 4 servings left.

I served the leftovers to Alma (22 months) for lunch (with parmesan sprinkled liberally on top) and she ate it without complaint. I think it helped that I didn’t mix in the cheese too much, and that she could see the chickpeas and olives.

Notes from  Oct 13, 2010:

I just made this with 4 Tbs. olive oil, 1 very large onion (3? cups), 2-3 Tbs. garlic, 1 1/3 tsp. red pepper flakes, 25 kalamata olives, 1 pound raw, prepped Brussels Sprouts greens, 1.5 cups vegetable broth, salt, 10 ounces whole wheat spaghetti, 3 cups home-cooked chickpeas, and parmesan cheese to taste. The dish came out quite well this time.  There was a good balance of greens and beans and pasta, and everything had nice flavor.  I really liked that the chickpeas didn’t make the dish sludgy, like white beans (or their cooking liquid) sometimes do.  Derek loved the dish.  Between the two of us, we ate the whole thing as a one-pot dinner plus as a large lunch the next day.   Whoops!  That was probably around 750 calories each, per meal.

Notes from May 2006:

I made a similar recipe from the cookbook Moosewood New Classics: orecchiette and butter beans and broccoli raab. I didn’t have broccoli raab so I used half collards and half dandelion (both blanched in the pasta water), and it wasn’t bitter at all. Derek liked the butter beans but I found them a bit big, starchy, and obtrusive. The orecchiette only comes in white flour and since this recipe doesn’t really benefit from the delightful shape of orecchiette, in the future I’ll stick with whole wheat linguine.  I do want to try the broccoli raab, but in general I liked the Cooks Illustrated version better than the Moosewood one.

Rating: B+
Derek: A-

Update Dec 12, 2010:

I made this dish tonight with the stated amount of onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and kalamata olives and

  • 1 pounds raw (but stemmed) curly kale [I blanched this in the salted pasta water til it was somewhat soft]
  • 1.5 cups vegetable broth [actually 1 cup of cooking liquid from white beans and 1/2 cup vegetable broth and 1 bouillon cube)
  • no extra salt since all the ingredients were salted
  • 1 large can of chickpeas [850 grams altogether and 450 grams of chickpeas, about 3 cups drained]
  • 8.6 ounces of whole wheat fettucine
  • parmesan cheese grated over each dish
  • no tomatoes
  • a pinch of saffron, maybe 1/8 tsp.?

It came out really well.  Both Derek and I really liked it.  The balance of beans/pasta/greens was excellent.  It tasted more umami than normal, and plenty rich.  I’m not sure whether the saffron added anything, but I think it did.  I would add it again next time.  The dish wasn’t that spicy.  I probably could have increased the chili flakes a tad.

I blanched the kale in my 5-quart pot, then used the same water to cook the pasta.  I made the dish in my 6-quart dutch oven, and there wasn’t much extra room after adding the kale.

Assuming 1/2 ounce parmesan per serving (which is quite generous), this version of the recipe is 25% fat, 59% carbs, and 16% protein.  One quarter of the recipe yields about 670 calories.

Calories 670
Total Fat 19.1g
Saturated Fat 3.6g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 10mg
Sodium 1162mg
Carbohydrate 101.1g
Dietary Fiber 17.9g
Sugars 12.5g
Protein 28g
Vitamin A 351% Vitamin C 243%
Calcium    45% Iron 45%


  1. kathy said,

    Hi Rose! I made this for dinner tonight, and it went pretty well. I had a great version at Greens in SF last week: bucatini with brocoli raab, butter beans, shallots, pepper flakes, olive oil, garlic bread crumbs, and pecorino pepato.

    Tonight, I used chard, chickpeas, and white linguini, minus the vegetable broth, minus the tomatoes, and with the rest as written here. I used the stems of the chard — chopped them celery-like and added them to the pan after the pasta. I should have chopped the chard leaves more; the wide ribbons that i used ended up as kind of stringy lumps. We served it at the table with more parmesan and a drizzle of good olive oil over the top. We didn’t miss the soupier vegetable broth, though we thought it could use a bit more savoriness from more olives, or maybe more carmelized onions or shallots. Mmm….

  2. captious said,

    A friend send me this comment:

    I made this dinner tonight. I had bought kale at the farmers market yesterday, and just happened to have all the rest of the ingredients on hand for this recipe, excepting the olives, and my family doesn’t care for olives.

    I did use a vegetable stock, a whole teaspoon of the red pepper flakes, great northern beans, and I did add a can of tomatoes when I added the beans (the recipe doesn’t say when to add the tomatoes?).

    It was kind of difficult to mix the pasta and other ingredients evenly in the pot. I think my daughter got more pasta and less greens (a lot of the greens seemed to be at the bottom of the pot and the people served towards the end got more greens and less pasta).

    This made 5 very generous servings. The family rated it 4 out of 5 stars (and my family is a bunch of carnivores, but they were OK with this vegetarian meal). I will make it again some time. We enjoyed it.

    Also, this recipe has another good feature: I believe it will work fairly well with the Raw Food Detox Diet book, that I’m currently picking and choosing from. (It allows for some cooked foods…)

  3. captious said,

    I posted this to an online forum, and got this comment back:

    I made this last night. Now I want it EVERY night. It was soooo yummy. My fiance, who hates collard greens, loved it and ate two servings last night. He gets way more calories then me *angry face*

  4. Matt said,

    Tried it with orzo today … excellent! Thanks.

  5. captious said,

    I’m going to make this recipe this week, and I’ve been brainstorming ideas for additions to bring this recipe up a notch. I asked Derek what a good vegetarian substitute for pancetta would be. He said pancetta is salty, fatty, smoky, and umami. If only I had some liquid smoke… I guess I could add a bit of smoked paprika or chipotle powder. For umami maybe nutritional yeast or perhaps some dried porcinis? Other ideas: saffron, capers, caramelized shallots, or tahini. Some acid from lemon juice or sherry vinegar might also be nice.

  6. » Healthy Dinner Recipes For Vegetarian Lasagna Vegetarian Recipes said,

    […] Hearty greens and beans with pasta « The captious vegetarian – A big bowl of pasta, hearty greens, and beans can really hit the spot on those days when you’re just hungry. Plus, beans and greens are two of the most nutritious foods you can eat. And beans, pasta, and greens make a great one dish meal. […]

  7. All kinds of kale … not « A Vegetarian in Germany said,

    […] you to give it a try.  My favorite kale recipes are simple steamed kale with a tahini sauce and beans and greens with pasta.  Kale is also quite good in enchiladas, and stir-fried with lots of garlic. Advertisement […]

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