Mention beans and many people think of winter dishes such as fagiuoli all'uccelletto (white beans cooked with garlic, sage, olive oil, tomato sauce, and, quite often, link sausages), which will stick to the ribs and keep the cold at bay.
However, beans are harvested in summer and can be extraordinarily refreshing in hot weather too. Beginning in June you'll find bins brimming with freshly picked bean pods in Italian markets. Or, if you're pressed for time, you can buy freshly shelled beans at a much higher cost.
What Kinds of Beans Will You Find?
The varieties vary from place to place and many are limited to a specific town or valley. However, you can expect to find cannellini and borlotti almost everywhere.
Cannellini is small, delicately flavored white beans, whereas borlotti are ivory with red streaks, become brown with cooking, and have a more robust flavor some describe as nutty. Cannellini in the U.S. is sometimes labeled as white kidney beans. Borlotti is instead quite similar to cranberry beans, and indeed large quantities of American dried cranberry beans are labeled borlotti and exported to Italy. Kidney and navy beans are similar to borlotti in flavor and will work as substitutes.
Beans in Italian Cuisine
At this point, you may be wondering about the place of beans in the Italian diet.
Now they are a popular vegetable and an important ingredient in a great many kinds of soup. In the past, however, their role was much more important: "People say, with good reason, that beans are the meat of the poor man," wrote Pellegrino Artusi in 1891 (translation, from The Art of Eating Well). "Indeed, if, in feeling around in his pocket, a worker unhappily realizes he doesn't have enough to buy a piece of meat sufficient to make a soup for his family, he will find in beans a healthy, nutritious, and inexpensive alternative. And there's more: beans stay with one for a long time, stifling the pangs of hunger..."
In other words, they were one of the primary sources of protein for a large part of the population. Tuscans weren't referred to as mangiafagioli or bean eaters for nothing.
Purchasing and Preparation Tips
- Fresh unshelled beans are well worth the extra effort they require, and kids love to shell them. Look them over before you buy them. The beans should press up through the pods, which should be clean and blemish-free. If the beans look like minuscule bumps, or if the pods look dried out or have spots of mold, pass them by. Figure about a pound (500 g) per person; this will translate into about a half-pound of shelled beans per person. Beans are good reheated, so don't worry about getting too many. There's no need to soak them if they're fresh.
- When using dried beans, figure between a quarter and a third of a pound per person. Here again, the beans should be whole and blemish-free. If their skins are shriveled, they're too old. Pick them over to remove the stray stone that may have crept into the bag, and soak them overnight in twice their volume of water before cooking them. You can also quick soak them by bringing them to a boil in the water, removing them from the heat, and letting them sit, covered, for about an hour.
- Beans are, alas, a stormy vegetable, and people have resorted to many strategies to keep the thunder at bay. Artusi suggests one select thin-skinned beans, but this is not always possible. Another technique is to soak the beans overnight in water that has had a little soda added to it; this will help diminish their potency. Be sure to rinse them very well the next morning before you cook them, however—drain them in a colander, and stir them about while wetting them down with a sprayer.
- When it comes to cooking your beans, the standard Italian technique is to boil them in enough water to cover them by at least an inch, while keeping a little bit more of hot water on hand in case more proves necessary. Boil them gently until they reach the soft-but-firm stage; the exact time will depend upon the freshness of the beans: With fresh beans, it can be as little as 20 minutes, whereas with dried beans it can be an hour or more.
- Salt them only towards the end of the cooking process because salt added too soon toughens them. Don't let them overcook lest they become mushy and fall apart, and remember, if you are planning something in which the cooked beans will then be cooked some more (for example fagiuoli all'uccelletto or minestrone), to adjust your cooking time accordingly. While you can boil your beans in plain water, it's common practice to add a couple of cloves of garlic, one or two peppercorns, and several leaves of fresh sage, especially to borlotti. The bean broth makes a wonderful addition to a hearty vegetable soup (for example, minestrone) and is also perfect for reheating leftover beans. So don't dispose of it as soon as the beans are cooked.
- To serve boiled beans as a side dish in summer, boil them with the above-mentioned garlic, pepper, and sage, seasoning them to taste with salt towards the end of the cooking time. Let them cool and remove them from the bean pot with a slotted spoon. Drizzle them with fresh olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste, and serve them cool; you'll find them tremendously refreshing. If you instead want to make a meal of your beans, thinly slice a medium-sized sweet (as opposed to acrid) onion into them before you drizzle them with the oil, and crumble some canned tuna into them too (figure a couple of ounces, 50 g, per person). Good crusty bread to mop up the drippings, a tossed green salad seasoned with olive oil and vinegar, a nice fruity white wine along the lines of a Vermentino dei Colli di Luni, and you're in business!