The word fagioli (pronounced "fa-JOLE-ee") is the Italian word for beans. It doesn't refer to any specific variety of beans (any more than the word beans does), but for most North Americans, the word fagioli is almost exclusively heard in the name of the iconic Italian soup dish pasta e fagioli.
Because they're cheap, filling and nutritious, beans have long played an important part in Italian cuisine, with the added benefit that dried beans can be kept for a long time without spoiling.
While there are innumerable varieties of beans available across Italy, many of them native to specific regions or even towns, the most common are cannellini and borlotti, which are found almost everywhere, which means that most versions of traditional pasta e fagioli feature one or both of these beans.
Cannellini are small, delicately flavored white beans, similar to great northern beans, navy beans or white kidney beans. Borlotti, which are sometimes called cranberry beans in North America, are ivory with red streaks, become brown with cooking, and have a more robust, nutty flavor. Surprisingly, pinto beans are similar to borlotti in flavor and appearance and will work as substitutes.
Purchasing And Storing Fresh Beans
In North America, the dried form of beans is by far the most common, but increasingly fresh unshelled beans can be found at farmers markets starting in the summer and fall. The flavor of fresh beans is one that most North Americans rarely if ever experience, which makes the extra effort of shelling the pods worth the effort—at least once in your life. It can be a fun activity for kids. You can also sometimes purchase fresh beans that have been shelled already, but they'll be more expensive.
If you find fresh beans at a farmers market, you might not be able, or want, to examine each individual pod. But it's not a bad idea to quickly look them over before you buy them. The pods should be plump, clean and relatively free of blemishes or spots. A pound of fresh bean pods will translate into about a half pound of shelled beans per person, which is about right. Beans are good reheated, so don't worry about getting too many. Fun fact: There's no need to soak them if they're fresh.
You can store fresh bean pods in a paper bag on the kitchen counter, where they'll stay fresh for about three days. You can store them in a paper bag in the fridge, where they'll last up to a week, but keep the bag dry.
You can even freeze fresh bean pods. Spread them on a sheet pan, freeze and then transfer the frozen pods to Ziploc bags. Stored this way, frozen beans will last several months.
When using dried beans, figure between a quarter and a third of a pound per person, but again, don't worry about making too many. Dried beans should be whole and blemish-free. If their skins are shriveled, they're too old. Pick them over to remove any stray stones.
Once upon a time, the conventional method for cooking dried beans involved soaking them overnight in twice their volume of water. But you can save time by doing a quick soak (bringing them to a boil in the water, removing them from the heat, and letting them sit, covered, for about an hour). And if you have an instant pot, presoaking becomes unnecessary.
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, or around six cups of water per half-pound of beans. Simmer 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 ones it can be an hour or more.
It's good practice to salt your beans only towards the end of cooking, because salt added too soon toughens them.
Don't let them overcook lest they become mushy and fall apart. And remember, if you're planning something in which the cooked beans will then be cooked some more (like in minestrone or pasta e fagioli), to adjust your cooking time accordingly.
Seasoning and Serving Beans
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. This cooking liquid is immensely flavorful, so whatever you do, don't toss it. This liquid, also sometimes called bean liquor, is handy for making dips and purées, and happens to be a wonderful medium for storing cooked beans.
To serve boiled beans as a refreshing 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 the beans with fresh olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste, and serve them cool.