As much as I am enjoying the range of winter leafy greens (see previous post Seasonal Winter Vegetables in Melbourne Australia), I am also enjoying pulses, and at this time of year pulses seem very appropriate.
There are many types of beans that I cook, including Black, Kidney, Lima, Black-eyed, Broad/Fava, Azuki and Navy beans (also known as Haricot), but perhaps because I come from an Italian background the beans I use more often than others, are Cannellini and Borlotti.
In this post I have chosen to celebrate the versatility of Borlotti beans, both fresh and dried. It is a long rave.
When I say versatility, I am not just upholding their usage in soups and salads with many variations to the combination of ingredients, but I am endorsing their irrefutable contribution in the nutritional value and flavour to many vegetable, meat and fish dishes.
I cannot think of any vegetable that I have not combined with Borlotti.
Significant are the vegetables used in an Italian soffritto – a mix of finely chopped carrot, celery, and onion, sautéed in olive oil (or butter or other fats or a combination). Those ingredients are the basis for most sauces, soups, braises and stews in any Italian kitchen. Soffrigere (verb) means to slowly fry or sauté. Soffritto is the product/the sautéed end result.
I particularly like combining Borlotti with bitter, leafy vegetables. Probably the most bitter are radicchio, endives, chicory, but mustard greens like kale, cime di rapa/turnip greens, kohlrabi and to a lesser extent – broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, all types of cabbage, radish, swede and turnips.
Thyme, bay, sage, marjoram, rosemary, fennel and parsley are my favourite herbs. But I also often use chilli or pepper, and at the other end spectrum nutmeg, a spice that brings out the sweetness of Borlotti. Of course, in Italian cuisine there is also garlic.
Bean soups can be thin or thick. Pasta of all shapes and sizes including broken spaghetti are commonly added to bean soups. There are many regional variations to Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans) but overall it is a relatively thick composition, a wet pasta dish in many localities.
Rice, Orzo (Barley) Farro (an ancient variety of wheat related to spelt) and even polenta are also common, but probably less common than pasta. Barley, Borlotti and sauerkraut are the ingredients in the soup in the photo above. Chestnuts taste quite farinaceous and while pairing them with beans may sound like an odd combination, but they are added togetther in some Italian regional soup recipes. They are popular in the regions of Valle d’Aosta, Piemonte, Liguria, Emilia Romagna and Toscana. Of course, the beans can also be mashed. Bean soups are considered to be nourishing and even brothy bean soups are usually presented with crostini or thick slices of good bread.
A drizzle of good Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the time of serving is a must. The perfume of the oil hitting the hot soup does wonders for my appetite!
And not all soups nees to be presented with grated cheese. One of the things I like to do as a dressing for some soups once they are cooked, is to sauté crushed or chopped garlic and finely cut parsley (sometimes I include fresh rosemary leaves) in Extra Virgin Olive Oil and pour it over the soup just before serving. This, too, stimulates the olfactory organs.
I must mention Borlotti and its association with pork – fresh meat or smoked – for example hocks, pancetta, lardo, salame, sausages, rind and ribs.
I will definitely not omit to mention, JOTA/IOTA an emblematic dish soup from Trieste, a city in Friuli Venezia Giulia, north-eastwards from the Veneto region. It is the city of my childhood. Jota is a thick, hearty soup of sauerkraut, Borlotti Beans, potato and smoked pork. Pretty Marvellous!
Below is a pasta sauce I made with minced duck, mushrooms and Borlotti. I cooked the sauce like a Bolognese but used minced duck instead of pork and beef. I also added nutmeg as is common in a Bolognese. And I presented the pasta with grated Parmesan cheese.
Borlotti combined with fresh pork sausages make flavoursome pasta sauces either cooked with or without tomatoes (or passata, paste).
One of my favourite ways of eating polenta is with a generous topping of fresh sausages cooked as a sugo made with tomatoes/passata. Cooked Borlotti beans are added to the sugo towards the end of cooking; these impart extra depth to the flavours of this dish and certainly make it more homely. A topping of grated Parmigiano on top of this dish is a must.
Anchovies are excellent in salads and braises that contain Borlotti.
Try a salad of Borlotti, roasted peppers, anchovies and a strong-tasting bitter green, like radicchio, chicory, endives or puntarella dressed with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, wine vinegar or lemon juice, seasoning and a little garlic. The anchovies can be mashed into the dressing.
The season for fresh Borlotti in the Southern States in Australia is late summer. The season is not very long so if you see them buy them. I was recently in a very good vegetable shop called Toscano in Kew (a suburb of Melbourne) and saw fresh Borlotti. In the Victoria Market, at the stall called the Fruttivendolo you will also find fresh Borlotti but if you are concerned about food miles ask where they are grown. It is winter in Melbourne. Both of these greengrocers sell fresh Borlotti in season but the ones sold in Melbourne now are from Queensland.
Below is a photo of fresh Borlotti in Bologna. The word scozzezi on the sign adveertises them as being Scottish. I guess that when we think about food miles, Queensland is about as far from Melbourne, as Scotland is from Bologna.
Fresh borlotti beans can be enclosed in pink, purple or white speckled pods; either way the beans are the same attractive colour and look as if they have been coated with wax. They are shiny and bursting with flavour.
It is preferable to shell the fresh beans soon after purchase. The skins of the fresh beans harden if they are exposed in the air for too long. While fresh beans may be difficult to obtain, the dried beans are much easier to find, as are canned beans, and if you are lucky, you can buy them packed in a jar.
Borlotti beans are also called Cranberry beans, especially in North America. Their attractive colouring sets them apart from other beans, but once cooked, they fade to a light – mid brown colour. Pinto beans are similar to Borlotti in colour, but have more brown specks and are not as vibrantly coloured.
Dried beans are simple to cook; I leave them to soak overnight before cooking.
I usually cook beans (all types) in 1kg quantities and keep them in sealed containers covered with their broth/cooking juice (I like to use sealed glass jars). I keep some jars in the fridge to use during the week and some jars in the freezer. The beans in jars also come in very handy on our many camping trips.
This Pasta e Fagioli was made by two of my Sicilian aunts in Ragusa, south eastern Sicily. It consists of cooked, fresh Borlotti and homemade, finger-rolled pasta (called causineddi/cavatelli).
As you can see by the consistency of this dish, it cannot be classed as a soup. This combination of fresh Borlotti and pasta is a late summer, Sicilian favourite.
1 kg of fresh borlotti beans (will give about 300 g when shelled)
1 stick of celery
1 red tomato
200 g of pasta or more
Being summer use basil in the broth and just before serving.
In a saucepan, preferably earthenware, put the beans, the finely chopped onion, the tomato, celery and carrot cut into very small pieces. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Put the lid on and simmer on low heat for about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper or some chilli flakes – this is the soup part. Add more water if necessary (or stock) and bring to the boil before adding some pasta. As soon as the pasta is cooked pour a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive oil on top.