It is often said that beans are the meat of the poor man, and they are a healthy, nutritious, and inexpensive alternative
to meat. Many people only think of beans for winter dishes, like soups and stews, but beans are wonderful added to
green salads, pasta salads, or served with grilled meats in the summertime. Canned beans are easily substituted for
home-cooked beans and are convenient for quick meals. Canned beans have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years
In Italy, beans are used in pasta dishes, salads, mashed and spread on bruschetta toasts, in soups and thicker
stews. They are also served as a side dish with steaks and sausage. Grown throughout the country, in both
northern and southern Italy, legumes can be found starring in many regional dishes. Packed with protein and soluble
fiber, beans are both delicious and satisfying. In regions of Northern Italy, dried beans were, and continue to be, a
satisfying solution to the cold weather, providing an important staple with a longer shelf life, ideal when fresh produce
is not available. Dried legumes (fagioli secchi) include beans, peas, and lentils. Store dried beans in a covered
container for up to 1 year.
Italian Beans (Fagioli)
Regional Preferences for Beans
Different kinds of beans are grown through Italy and each region has a favorite variety. Borlotti or cranberry beans are preferred in Veneto
and are usually used in soup. The region of Tuscany is famous for its bean production with cannellini beans being the most popular. In
fact, the Tuscans eat so many beans that they are known an mangiafagioli, or bean-eaters. Borlotti is another beloved bean of northern
Italy. In central Italy, legumes often compete with vegetables in antipasto as well as pasta courses and main dishes. In this region,
many beans regain supreme from cannellini to borlotti and lentils. In Abruzzi, Molise, and Puglia, chickpeas are a favorite; they, along
with borlotti, and fava beans are cooked and dressed with olive oil and spices and are offered with antipasto. In these regions, beans are
added to thick soups and to pasta, pureed to be served with vegetables, or cooked with a spicy sauce or with fresh grilled sausages. In
Basilicata and Calabria, legumes are usually preferred fresh and raw. Fava beans picked fresh from a garden and shelled are a delicacy
that is offered with a glass of wine. Fresh or dried fava beans are a staple of Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania as well as Sicily. It is a Tuscan
custom to serve fresh fava beans with pecorino toscano. They bring a bowl of bean pods to the table, and a round of cheese; people cut
wedges of the cheese and shell beans, alternating morsels of cheese with beans. Lentils, or lenticchie, are eaten all across Italy. The
most select lentils are grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and Sicily
Borlotti Beans are one of the best known and most
popular beans in central and northern Italy. During the
summer and early autumn in Italy, you may find fresh
borlotti beans, sometimes still in the pod. The pod of
the fresh bean is yellowish in color with bright red and
green speckles, while the bean itself is white with red
speckles or more solidly red. But borlotti beans are
mostly used in their dry form. The cooked beans have
a dense, velvety texture with a little more nutty flavor
than most beans. Borlotti beans are widely used in
the famous northern Italian soup, pasta e fagioli.
Cannellini Beans have spread from the kitchens of
Tuscany to become a favorite among all Italians.
Cannellini beans are large, creamy white in color, mild
in flavor, and have a traditional kidney shape. They
have a relatively thin skin and tender interior. They
hold their shape well and are one of the best white
beans for salads and soups. Cannellini are related to
kidney beans, great northern, and navy beans. The
beans are difficult to harvest when ripe and therefore
are harvested in the fall when the pod is completely
dry. As a result, the beans are rarely eaten fresh.
The dried beans double in size when soaked, so a few beans go a long way in a dish. Cannellini beans
are available in supermarkets in both dried and canned form. If cannellini beans are unavailable, great
northern beans can be substituted; navy beans may also be used but they are much smaller in size.
Chickpeas (Cece) or Garbanzo Beans
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; it is cultivated onlyin the warmer southern regions.
Chickpeas have a firm texture with a flavor somewhere between
chestnuts and walnuts. It is probably the only legume that
maintains a similar quality whether fresh or dry. Chickpeas can
be cooked and eaten cold in salads, cooked in soups and stews,
added to pasta, and ground into a flour.
Pasta e ceci is a dish of chickpeas and pasta enjoyed in Puglia, Piedmont, and Lombardy. Garbanzo beans can
be purchased dried or canned and sometimes fresh. Always rinse canned beans before using and dried beans
should be soaked for at least 4 hours before cooking. Read the label on the package for specific details.
Fava Beans were once the only beans eaten in Italy, and then
mostly by peasants. Now the fava bean is eaten and cultivated
all over Italy, although the main area of growth is in the warmer
south. Fava beans are eaten raw in the springtime when they are
young and tender. Otherwise both fresh and dry beans are
cooked. The fresh variety takes only 10 minutes to cook, and
less if you discard the tough outer skin. When buying fresh fava
beans check that the pod is shiny and firm and that the beans
inside are tightly packed.
One important tip for buying fresh fava beans is to allow for the fact that three-quarters of the weight will be discarded with the pods; so if you need 1 pound of shelled beans you will need to buy 4 pounds. Dried fava
beans have an earthy, slightly bitter flavor. When buy dried fava beans, look for the peeled variety. Without the tough skins, they cook more quickly. The flavor and texture of fresh fava beans is completely different from dried, so do not substitute one for the other.
Lentils are legumes along with other types of beans. They grow
in pods that contain either one or two lentil seeds that are round,
oval or heart-shaped disks. Lentils are only available dried; they
are not used fresh. Canned lentils are also available, but it is just
as easy to cook your own. Lentil colors range from yellow to red-
orange to green, brown and black. Lentils also vary in size and
are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split.
Compared to other types of dried beans, lentils are relatively
quick and easy to prepare.
Unlike dried beans and peas, there's no need to soak them. Lentils require a cooking time of 10 to 40 minutes,
depending on the variety. French green lentil are mildly peppery in flavor and hold their shape well, but take longer
to cook than other lentils. The milder brown lentils still have their seed coat and have not been split so they also
hold their shape after cooking, but can easily turn mushy if overcooked. Most red, yellow, and orange lentils tend
to disintegrate with long cooking because the hulls have been removed. Dried lentils have an indefinite shelf-life
but for best flavor use lentils within a year of purchase. Cooked lentils may be refrigerated up to one week in a
sealed container. Cooked lentils may also be frozen up to six months but they may fall apart when reheated.
How to Soak Dried Beans
Most dried beans need to be soaked before cooking. Soaking beans allows the dried beans to absorb water, which begins to dissolve the starches that cause
intestinal discomfort. While beans are soaking they are also double to tripling in their size. You can cook beans without soaking, but it takes longer, and some
people think the beans taste better when soaked. In general, the larger the bean, the longer they need to soak: and the longer you soak beans, the faster they
cook. Soak most beans in three times their volume of cold water for at least 6 hours or overnight before cooking. You can also ‘quick soak’ them. The best way
is to put them in cold water; bring them gently to a boil and then with saucepan off the heat, allow them to remain in the water for 1 to 2 hours. Always discard
the water in which the beans are soaked to avoid digestive difficulties. Split peas and lentils don't need to be soaked. They take about 30 minutes to cook.
How to Cook Dried Beans
After soaking, drain the beans and add fresh water to the cooking pot. 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 when the beans are just tender.
Bring the beans to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer for 1 to 2 hours, or until the beans are tender. It is difficult to give exact cooking times for beans
because a lot depends on the variety and age of the beans. Check your package of beans for the recommended cooking time. But also check the beans
occasionally, because sometimes the beans will cook more quickly than the package says. When dried beans boil, a foam forms on the top of the cooking
liquid. This foam is water-soluble protein released from the beans and it will be absorbed back into the bean cooking liquid. It is not necessary to remove the
Beans are done when they can be easily mashed between two fingers or with a fork. Always test a few beans in case they have not cooked evenly.
Beans taste better if cooked a day ahead, but they should be refrigerated to avoid becoming sour. When cooked, they can be frozen. Store cooked beans,
covered, for up to a week in your refrigerator. Cooked beans can be frozen up to 6 months.
Fagioli al Fiasco
Fagioli al Fiasco was a traditional way of cooking beans in Tuscany.
Families living in the countryside, who had wood burning ovens, would
cook beans in the fire after having baked bread. The method is fairly
simple. A large round bottle with a narrow neck, called a fiasco, is
partially filled with beans, water, herbs, and olive oil. The bottle is
placed in the ashes of a hearth to cook. The bottle’s narrow neck
keeps the liquid from evaporating too quickly as the beans simmer in
the liquid. Long, slow cooking ( 5 to 6 hours) yields tender, creamy
beans that keep their shape. When the beans are cooked, they are
poured out of the bottle and drizzled with olive oil and freshly ground
How Much Beans Should You Cook?
Since dried beans swell 2 to 3 times their size when they cook, here is a general guide to determining dried to
1 cup dried beans = 2-1/2 cups cooked beans
A one pound package of dry beans equals about 2 cups dry, or 5-6 cups cooked.
A 15 ounce can (drained) equals about 1-2/3 cups cooked beans.