cucina bene; mangia bene (eat more beans)
This week we will talk about beans, and more specifically: dried beans. Beans are prolific throughout the world and most cultures have a favorite bean and bean dish. Here in America, we tend to gravitate towards only the few available at the local supermarket: pinto, navy, kidney, and black. If you shop at a farmer’s market with a bean vendor you can purchase a wide variety of heirloom beans with interesting names like Yellow Indian Woman, Rio Zape, Good Mother Stallard, Yellow Eye, and Snowcap. All of them have a different flavor and texture and type of use. For example, Snowcap beans are very versatile and can be used in soups, stews, or as a stand alone side-dish. Here on the Oregon Coast, we are lucky to have access to the beans from Matt-Cyn Farm in Albany. They are a vendor at the Corvallis farmers’ market ; they carry a wide variety of heirloom beans that are available in the fall, and they are incredible.
Beans are also nutritional powerhouses; they are high in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and low in fat. Additionally, they contain high amounts of folic acid, copper, magnesium, and iron. The down side to beans is the amount of indigestible carbohydrates they contain which can cause gas. This problem can be reduced by soaking beans for 6-8 hours prior to cooking and using fresh water to cook them and discarding the soaking water. It is also said that if beans are eaten more frequently, the body adjusts to the indigestible carbohydrates thus further reducing potential gas problems.
As mentioned earlier, beans are eaten all over the world in a variety of ways. Today, we will focus on the bean-eating region of Italy: Tuscany (Toscana) where more beans are consumed than any other region. The Italians have lovingly named Tuscans ‘mangiafagioli’ or ‘bean-eaters’, and the king of the bean there is not the cannellini bean as many might think. It is a bean that is not readily available here in the USA because the Tuscans eat most of them: the zolfini. Zolfino means sulfur in Italian and the bean is so named because of it’s color. The Tuscans traditionally cooked their beans in a glass flask that was buried in the embers of a fire and left overnight to cook. In the morning, the beans would be fully cooked: creamy and delicious. Today, the beans are typically cooked on the stovetop or baked in the oven. The method in the recipe below uses the oven and substitutes the zolfini for the more readily available cannellini. Drizzle with a robust peppery olive oil and serve with some crusty bread and imagine yourself in Tuscany. A presto!
Baked Tuscan White Beans (serves 4)
1 cup dried cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed under cold water
2-4 cloves garlic with 2 cloves minced and set aside
1 small onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh sage, plus 1 sprig with leaves removed, chopped, and set aside
1 sprig fresh rosemary, plus 1 sprig with leaves removed, chopped, and set aside
Salt & Pepper to taste
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil (or other good olive oil) for drizzling
Soak the beans in cold water for 6-8 hours or overnight. Be sure they are completely covered in water at least 2-3 inches as they will swell and double or triple in size. Preheat the oven to 350 F, drain the beans, and place in a Dutch oven or oven proof casserole. Add 1 tsp. salt, the garlic, onion, bay leaf, rosemary, and sage. Add water to cover by 3 inches, cover, and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check the beans a couple of times and add additional water if needed.
Remove the beans from the oven and discard the garlic, onion, sage, bay leaf, and rosemary. Drain off some of the liquid, and season with additional salt, pepper, the chopped rosemary and sage, and minced garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and serve warm.
The beans will be great, but will be even better the next day when they have had a chance to absorb the flavors of the fresh garlic and herbs. You can serve the beans as a side dish with roasted pork or lamb, as a bruschetta with toasted bread, as a soup (just add chicken stock), or as a salad on top of lightly dressed mixed greens. They are very delicious when served with pan-roasted shrimp and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. You will love them any way you have them……buon appetito!