fagioli misti (mixed beans)

Popular Italian Beans

The region of Tuscany is famous for its bean production.  Cannellini or white kidney beans, are, perhaps, its most popular bean.  Borlotti is a bean of northern Italy. Borlotti is also considered to be the healthiest due to its high iron concentration. This bean, in particular, is a popular meat substitute. These red, tan and brown speckled beans turn a dark brown on the outside and yellow on the inside when cooked. They add a creamy consistency to any recipe.

Fresh or dried fava beans are a staple of Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Sicily. A staple of southern Italian cuisine, fava beans are hardy and widely available. Purchasing beans that are already skinned and split is the preferred method for ease of preparation. Buying whole beans in their protective skins calls for hours of soaking as well as a tinge of bitterness when they are cooked. Lentils, or lenticchie, are eaten all across Italy. With their nutty taste, lentils are ideally small and brown. The most select lentils are grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and Sicily. Although lentils do not require soaking previous to cooking, they are best when soaked for about an hour.

With the exception of a few types of beans, like lentils, most should be soaked at least eight hours or longer. Some cooks add a bit of baking soda during the soaking, which seems to help the beans remain intact during cooking. Be sure to discard the water, the beans soak in, before cooking with them.

Also, when cooking beans, be generous with the water – a good rule of thumb is six cups for every cup of beans. One cup of dry beans will yield two cups of cooked beans. Try adding a bit of olive oil to the water the beans cook in because it will add flavor and keep them from sticking to each other. Cooking times will vary, of course, but generally Borlotti take about an hour, chickpeas require about an hour and a half of cooking time and lentils may be ready after a half hour.

Some of the most popular Italian dishes that call for beans include minestrone,  bean soup, lentil soup, pasta with red bean sauce, fava beans and pasta, lentil stew with sausage and penne with chickpeas. Beans are used in spreads, soups, sauces and main courses. Beans are a great source of fiber, antioxidants and protein. Many people choose the simplicity of canned beans over cooking dried beans. However, canned beans are more expensive per serving and also have added sodium. With a little bit of planning, you can work with dried beans. You will taste the difference in fresh cooked dried beans.

Soaking the Beans

The night before serving, rinse the beans, picking out any bad ones and place them in a large bowl. Cover with about 2 inches of water, add a pinch of baking soda and let soak overnight. The next day, drain well. Place the beans in a heavy soup pot with 1 carrot, cut in half, 1 celery stick, cut in half,  1/2 onion, peeled and quartered, 1 sprig of rosemary and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are tender. Drain and discard the vegetables. Adding salt to beans at the beginning of cooking toughens the skins and increases cooking time, so add it to taste toward the end of the cooking time.  Most types of beans cook in about an hour but taste for tenderness. You can serve the beans as a side dish or refrigerate the beans to use in recipes on another day.

Here are some recipes I recommend using cooked beans.

Beans and Greens

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
  • 1 bunch Swiss Chard, cut into one inch pieces or any greens of choice
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried Italian herbs
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups cooked cannellini beans
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Directions

In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Add garlic, and cook 1 minute more. Add Swiss Chard, and stir slowly, allowing it to wilt slightly.  Add chicken broth, herbs, and salt; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the beans, and continue to simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the greens are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Serve warm, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.

Tuscan Country Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped fennel
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (2-3 cloves)
  • 3 cups cooked dried cannellini beans
  • 1 carton (32 oz)  low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the fennel, celery and carrots and saute for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the drained beans, chicken broth and tomatoes to the pan along with the thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with the grated cheese.

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