beans

Beans play an essential role in Italian cooking and, consequently, they are grown throughout the country. From Sicily in the south to Piedmont and Veneto in the north, various regions produce different kinds of beans, all of which are enjoyed by the Italian culture. While many cooks will substitute one white bean for another, each type provides its own individual shape and texture to a given dish.

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Borlotti (cranberry beans) is a favorite bean in northern Italy. These red, tan and brown speckled beans turn  dark brown on the outside and  yellow on the inside when cooked. They add a creamy consistency to any recipe.

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The region of Tuscany is famous for Cannellini, white kidney beans, and are simply referred to as fagioli. Other popular Tuscan white beans include sorani, toscanello, corona and schiaccianoci.

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Chickpeas (Cece) or Garbanzo Beans are the most widely consumed legume in the world and have been adopted in every region of Italy. The chickpea has a round shape and are beige in color. They have a firm texture with a flavor somewhere between chestnuts and walnuts. Chickpeas can be cooked in soups and stews, added to pasta, eaten cold in salads and ground into a gluten-free flour.

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Corona, a large white bean,  is a member of the runner family and when cooked, they almost triple in size. This is one reason this hearty bean is often called the “poor man’s meat.”

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Fava beans are a staple of Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania, as well as Sicily. A staple of southern Italian cuisine, fava beans are hardy and widely available.

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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 all beans, keep in mind that the fresher the bean, the better it will taste when used in your favorite recipes.

A diet rich in fiber is a great preventative of coronary heart disease and colon cancer. Beans can provide a reduction in serum cholesterol levels and are also thought to prevent diabetes in at-risk individuals. Additionally, beans contain more protein than any other vegetable; some beans even rival chicken or meat in protein content.

Cooking beans at home is a simple way to save money and provide the base for many healthy meals. It requires little effort and they’re easy to keep on hand in the refrigerator or freezer. You can quickly put together soups, salads, dips and spreads.

Basic Directions for Cooking Dried Beans

Makes about 6 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 pound dried beans
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Spread beans in a single layer on a large sheet tray; pick through to remove and discard any small stones or debris and then rinse well.

Soak the beans using one of these two methods:

Traditional soaking method: In a large bowl, cover beans with 3 inches of cold water, cover and set aside at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.

Quick soaking method: In a large pot, cover beans with 3 inches of cold water, cover and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, remove pot from heat and set aside, covered, for 1 hour.

Drain soaked beans and transfer to a large pot. Cover with 2 inches of cold water, add onion and bay leaves and bring to a boil; skim off and discard any foam on the surface. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, gently stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Drain beans, discard onions and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper.

Beans develop flavor as they cook, but the flavor is subtle. You can boost the flavor of cooked beans by adding aromatic root vegetables, herbs and spices or meat to the pot near the end of cooking—the last 10 to 30 minutes. The flavor of the vegetables, herbs and meat is infused in the water and in turn is drawn into the bean. The conventional wisdom about salting beans is that salt toughens the skins as they cook. So it is best to add salt at the end of the cooking time. Do not add acidic ingredients, like vinegar, tomatoes or tomato juice, as this will slow the cooking process. Instead, add these ingredients after the beans are cooked.

Here are several flavoring options to add near the end of cooking dried beans:

  • Sauté separately diced aromatic vegetables—onions, celery, carrots, leeks, celery root, parsnip, garlic–in olive oil until just soft then stir them into the bean pot with about 10 minutes left to cook.
  • At the end of cooking, stir in salt and pepper to taste, add a bouquet garni–a few thyme sprigs, parsley stems and two bay leaves tied in kitchen twine–to soak.
  • Add a ham hock or a piece of prosciutto to cook with the beans for a deep meaty flavor. Diced bacon or ham steak added to the liquid will also deliver flavor to the beans, as will chunks of beef, pork or lamb.
  • When using beans in a soup, you can thicken the soup by transferring a cup or two of the cooked beans and broth to a blender and purée thoroughly. Then return the purée to the cooking pot.

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Orecchiette Pasta with Spinach and Beans

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound orecchiette pasta (small ears)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 12 ounces fresh spinach leaves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 cups cooked cannellini beans, drained
  • Parmesan cheese, grated

Directions:

Cook the orecchiette in boiling water  for 1-2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time. Drain and do not rinse.

While the pasta is cooking, saute garlic and red pepper flakes in oil in a saute pan for 1-2 minutes.  Do not allow garlic to brown. Add spinach, salt and pepper. Saute until the spinach is wilted. Add broth and simmer about 5 minutes. Add beans and drained orecchiette to the broth mixture. Stir to combine and cook 1-2 more minutes. Transfer to a serving dish.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

TIP: If you under cook pasta by a few minutes and then add it to your soup to finish the cooking time, the pasta will absorb some of the broth and be more flavorful.

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Bean and Sausage Stew

4 Servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 4 Italian sausage links, either pork or turkey, cut in half
  • 1 cup cooked beans, drained
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed 6-quart pot, heat the olive oil over medium high. Brown the sausages on all sides for about 10 minutes and remove onto a plate.

Add the onions to the pot and cook for 5 minutes, until slightly translucent. Add the remaining ingredients.

Bring to a boil, return the sausage to the pot and reduce the heat to medium low.

Cook, partially covered, for about 30 minutes or until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper to taste.

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Herbed Lentils with Spinach and Tomatoes

Serve with pita bread

Ingredients

  • 1 cup lentils
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons diced shallots
  • 3 cups baby spinach leaves (about 3 ounces)
  • 14 oz. diced tomatoes, slightly drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Place the lentils in a pot with the water and let rest one hour. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender but still retain their shape. Drain any excess water from the lentils and set them aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until they are softened, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, lentils, basil and parsley to the pan and stir to combine. Cook until warmed through. Stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper and serve.

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Beans and Broccoli 

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried large white beans (corona), soaked overnight
  • 3 ounces Parmesan cheese with rind
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 head garlic, halved crosswise
  • Kosher salt
  • 1½ pounds broccoli, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained, finely chopped
  • 2 wide strips lemon zest, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Directions

Drain beans and place in a large heavy pot. Remove the rind from the cheese and add to the beans along with the onion and garlic. Pour in water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, adding water as needed to keep beans submerged, until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Season with salt. Let the beans cool in the liquid. Discard vegetables and Parmesan rind, then drain.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Mix broccoli with ¼ cup oil on a rimmed baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Roast, turning occasionally, until tender and lightly charred, 15–20 minutes. Let cool. Finely chop the broccoli.

In a large bowl combine the anchovies, lemon zest, lemon juice, remaining ¼ cup of olive oil and beans. Mix gently. Add the broccoli and season with salt and pepper, if needed. Shave Parmesan cheese over the mixture and serve.

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Braised Chicken with Fennel and White Beans

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cut-up whole chicken (about 3 lbs)
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher or sea) salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 small onion, cut into thin wedges
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, quartered, cored, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 1 can (28 oz) Italian whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 2 cups cooked beans
  • Chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Directions

In a deep 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Add chicken pieces to the skillet; cook 5 to 6 minutes, turning occasionally, until chicken is light golden brown. Remove chicken from skillet to a platter.

Add onion, garlic, fennel and bell pepper to the skillet. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until vegetables are crisp-tender. Add browned chicken, tomatoes, wine and rosemary. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, turning chicken once, until chicken is tender.

Stir in beans. Cook uncovered about 5 minutes longer or until sauce is slightly thickened and juice of chicken is clear, when the thickest area reads 165°F on a meat thermometer. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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