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Tale of Two Beans

Beautiful Bean Pods

One of the things I love about having a vegetable garden is getting to eat all kinds of things that never make it to grocery stores or even most farmers’ markets. Eating a potato that was underground minutes before it was cooked, popping peas into your mouth as you shell them in the garden, nibbling leaves….the ultimate in fresh and local.  Gardeners get to eat nasturtium and mustard flowers, radish seedpods, purslane, wild arugula, chickweed, tender pea shoots…not to mention all the wonderful varieties of regular vegetables to be found when you poke around in seed catalogs (my favorite reading material).

Two of my favorite not so esoteric, but much loved garden treats are Romano pole beans and Borlotto beans. Both, not surprisingly, are favorites in Italy. The Romano bean is a long, flat-podded green bean that is tender, sweet, and full of beany flavor. Borlotto beans, also called Cranberry beans, are used as a fresh “shelly” bean. When the beans are ready to shell, the pods become streaked with yellow and red. Inside, the fat white beans are covered with swirls and speckles of red. At this stage, the beans have a sweet, chestnut-like flavor. I have grown and saved seed for both these beans for many years, but this year I decided to try the real thing from Seeds From Italy (www.growitalian.com).”Supermarconi” Roma pole bean and a Borlotto bean called “Lingua di Fuoca” surpassed my old beans in beauty, flavor, and productivity. Viva Italia!

The Bean that launched a Thousand Salads 

Beans on the Vine

The big flat pods of the Romano bean are intensely flavorful, quick cooking, and succulent, making them perfect for salads or stir-fry cooking.

Simple and Delicious: Steam or boil the trimmed whole beans in salted water for 2 or 3 minutes, until tender-crisp. Drain and transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with kosher or sea salt, add some minced garlic, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

More Flavors: Add a splash of balsamic or sherry vinegar… or make a vinaigrette with minced garlic and shallot, 2 Tbs white wine vinegar, 2 tsp dijon mustard, and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil…throw in some capers or chopped anchovies… or finely chopped hot chile.

Go Asian: Heat 3 Tbs peanut oil and 1 Tbs toasted sesame oil with 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, 1 Tbs finely chopped ginger, and 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic in a small pan until small bubbles begin to rise. Remove from the heat and set aside 1 hour.  Whisk in 1/4-cup rice vinegar and 2 Tbs soy sauce. Toss with cooked green beans.

Orange-Walnut Vinaigrette: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove and 1/4 tsp coarse salt. Whisk in 4 Tbs fresh orange juice, 1 Tbs fresh lemon or lime juice, 1 Tsp orange zest, 1 1/2 tsp sherry or balsamic vinegar, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, 1 Tbs soy sauce, and 4 to 6 Tbs walnut oil. Toss with cooked green beans, thinly sliced fennel, and thinly sliced red onion. Top with toasted walnuts.

Go Mexican with Roasted Salsa Vinaigrette: Dry-roast 3 or 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, 2 thick slices white onion and 3 or 4 plum tomatoes (or tomatillos), and 1 serrano or jalapeno pepper on an iron skillet over medium heat until charred and soft–it takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Peel the garlic and tomatoes, seed the pepper, and put them in a blender with the onion, 2 Tbs fresh lime juice, 4 Tbs chopped cilantro, 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 or 2 tsp balsamic or cider vinegar, and 1/2 tsp toasted cumin seed. Pulse to make a chunky sauce. Thin with water or more lime juice, if needed. Toss with cooked green beans and thinly sliced red onion.

Borlotto Beans with Red Onion and Tomatoes

Beans with Onion and Tomato

If you have freshly shelled beans, use them. Otherwise, substitute 3 cups cooked white beans in this recipe. I like to make beans this way to toss with pasta, but they would pair well with cornbread or polenta, too.

Cook 3 cups freshly shelled beans in a pot with water to cover by 1 inch. Add 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf, 5 or 6 fresh sage leaves, and 1/2 tsp salt to the water. Simmer until the beans are tender, 25 to 30 minutes.

Warm 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium low heat. Add 2 cups thinly sliced red onion and 1/2 tsp salt and stir the onions in the oil. Cook gently 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and beginning to color. Add 1 finely chopped red chile, 3 finely chopped garlic cloves, and 4 to 6 thinly sliced fresh sage leaves. Cook 1 minute. Add the cooked beans and 1/2 cup of their cooking broth. Simmer together over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 3 cups fresh tomatoes (cherry tomatoes cut in half, or plum tomatoes quartered) and 1/4 cup finely chopped sundried tomatoes. Cook a few minutes, until the tomatoes are warmed through. Season to taste with salt and sprinkle with chopped parsley leaves.

Note: When fresh tomatoes are not available, substitute oven dried tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes.

Minestrone / “Big Soup” with Two Beans 

Bean Soup

This is an end-of-the-summer-garden soup–a minestrone, or “big soup”– made when the beans are ready to shell and summer vegetables have ripened to perfection. Starting with a sofritto and adding each ingredient in order of cooking time builds layers of flavor and lets each vegetable shine. This recipe includes a “secret ingredient”–a piece of Parmesan cheese rind that adds flavor to the broth.

Shell out 3 cups fresh borlotto (cranberry) or other shelly beans. Or, substitute 3 cups cooked cannellini or other large, white soup beans.

Make a flavor base: Warm 3 or 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large soup pot with 1 cup finely sliced onion and 1 bay leaf over medium-low heat. Add a few Tbs chopped pancetta or bacon, if you like. Stir well and cook until the onion softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add the rest of the vegetables in sequence:  Add 1 cup diced carrots and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring once or twice. Repeat this procedure with 1 cup diced celery, 2 cups peeled, diced potato, 2 cups diced zucchini, and 2 cups sliced green beans. Stir in 1 finely chopped hot chile, and 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves.

Add 1 cup diced tomato, the freshly shelled beans (add canned or already cooked beans when the soup has finished cooking), a rind of Parmesan cheese, and 4 cups water, chicken, or vegetable broth (preferably homemade). Season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir well, cover the pot, and simmer over low heat. The soup should bubble gently until all the vegetables are tender, 30 to 45 minutes, or longer if you like.

When the soup has finished cooking, boil 3/4 cup tiny pasta (Acini di Pepe, orzo, or other small pasta) in salted water, just until al dente. Drain and stir the pasta into the soup. If the soup is too thick, thin with water or more broth. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Serve the soup with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and Gremolata.

Gremolata: Finely chop 1 cup fresh parsley leaves and 2 or 3 garlic cloves (1 Tbs) to make a loose pesto. Add 4 tsp finely grated lemon zest and 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt. Sprinkle the mixture over the soup.

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Bean Salads, Synergy, and Serendipity

Mung Bean Salad

Sometimes cooking involves serendipity. First came the mung beans, then recipes in Silk Road Cooking, and finally advice from an Italian Grandmother. “You welcome whatever arrives, and then you listen closely and nourish well.” This is one of the lessons Jessica Theroux absorbed while researching her wonderful book, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. I believe this approach to life applies to the ingredients that arrive in my kitchen as well as the people that gather around my table.

I decided to take this advice when a jar of mung beans came into my life. My daughter, Naomi, brought me various jars of beans to help use up, and the mung beans called out to me. I like to make bean salads for summer lunches: lentils, red beans, white beans, black beans, kidney beans…but I never used mung beans. The question was, what flavors do mung beans like? I found a “Samarkand Mung Bean Salad” in the Silk Road Cooking book, so I was off to a good start.

Then comes the synergy — the sum being greater than it’s parts. Beans have a great ability to soak up flavors from whatever you mix with them. The ingredients for a good bean salad include contrasting flavors and textures (crunchy, smooth, acidic, sweet): perfectly cooked beans (tender but not mushy), lots of chopped fresh vegetables, aromatic fresh herbs, and a dressing of sprightly citrus juices and flavorful oil.

Carrot and Mung Bean Salad

First, I cooked a cup of mung beans in 4 cups water with a tsp salt and a bay leaf. They cook quickly, like lentils. Simmer them gently. After 20 minutes, begin checking to see if they’re done. They should be tender, but not exploded. Remove from the heat and drain the beans in a sieve. Put the drained beans in a large bowl.

While the beans cook: soak a thinly sliced, small red onion in cold water. After 1/2 hour, drain and mix into the beans.

Heat an iron skillet over medium heat and dry roast 4 tsp cumin seed. Stir constantly 45 to 60 seconds, or until the cumin is fragrant. Add to the bowl of beans. Sprinkle with 1 tsp curry powder and stir gently to combine.

Mash 2 garlic cloves with a pinch of coarse salt in a mortar to make a paste. Add 3 Tbs fresh lemon or lime juice to the garlic paste. Add 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger and 1 finely chopped jalapeno. Stir and let sit 10 minutes.

Finely chop about 1/2-cup fresh herbs. I used parsley, cilantro, chives, and thyme. Coarsely chop about 2 cups spicy greens. I used curly endive and arugula. Add the herbs to the beans.

The Samarkand version calls for fresh diced tomatoes, but I didn’t have any. The salad needed some color, so I substituted about 1 1/2-cups shredded carrots and 1/2 cup chopped celery for crunch. Mix the tomato or carrots into the salad.

Whisk 3 or 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil or other flavorful nut oil with the garlic -lemon mixture. Pour over the salad and toss gently. Adjust the seasoning (I added more lime juice) and mix in the chopped greens. Or, serve the salad on top of the greens. Sprinkle the salad with toasted sunflower or sesame seeds.

I think a couple cups fresh mung beans sprouts would be a fabulous addition. Then it could be called Double Mung Bean Salad. Our left over mung bean salad was mixed with some pilaf of wild rice and red Bhutanese rice to make yet another salad.

Version Two

Mung beans are really good, and that they cook so quickly makes them extra attractive. I made this salad again, using 1/2 cup green lentils and 1/2-cup mung beans. I cooked them together (with 1/2 tsp salt, thyme, bay leaf, and a hot chile) because they both take about 20 to 25 minutes to cook. I mixed them with 1 Tbs toasted cumin seed, the juice of 1 lemon (about 3 Tbs), 1 tsp lemon zest, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 1/4 cup chopped mint, 1/2 cup chopped sweet onion, 5 chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and 1 cup finely sliced purple cabbage. I added a cup of freshly cooked chickpeas, some minced garlic, and a few Tbs extra virgin olive oil. I love the fresh mint and the bright purple cabbage.

 Black Bean Salad with Mango

Bean Salad

Black beans, golden mange, red pepper, and bright green cilantro–a beautiful color and flavor combination. Increase the chiles to make it a salsa. Canned beans work fine in this salad, just be sure to drain and rinse them well.

Mix 2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 can) with 1 1/2 cups diced ripe, firm mango, 2/3-cup diced red onion, 1 cup diced red bell pepper, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapenos, 2 tsp toasted cumin seed, and 1/2 cup chopped cilantro or Thai basil.

Make a dressing: Mash 2 garlic cloves with 1/4 tsp coarse salt to make a paste. Add 3 Tbs fresh lime juice and 1 tsp lime zest. Stir in 1 or 2 tsp minced chipotle chile en adobo. Stir in 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper.

Toss the salad with the dressing. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes to absorb the flavors. Adjust the seasoning and toss again.

Secret ingredient: Instead of chipotle chile, mix a bit of Indian pickle into the dressing to create a wonderful mysterious flavor.

 White Bean Salad with Cherry Tomatoes

I like big, fat beans for this salad–Cannellini, Great Northern, or freshly shelled beans–mixed with bright red, ripe tomatoes or red bell pepper, and spicy greens. Cook the beans with a big sprig of fresh rosemary and a small dried chile.

Combine about 3 cups cooked beans with 1 1/2-cups halved cherry tomatoes (or 1/2-cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes), 3/4-cup chopped red onion (soaked in cold water for 1/2 hour), 2 Tbs drained capers, 1/2-cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint leaves.

Make a dressing: Mash 1 or 2 garlic cloves with a pinch of coarse salt in a mortar to make a paste. Add 1/4-cup fresh lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest. Stir in 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp minced fresh rosemary, and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil.

Toss the dressing with the salad. Let sit 5 to10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add more lemon juice or wine vinegar to taste. Gently stir in 2 or 3 cups coarsely chopped arugula or other spicy greens.

Lentil Salad with Cumin-Mint Vinaigrette

 All lentils are not created equal; it’s important to use small green French lentils for this salad. French lentils cook quickly and hold their shape well. Small brown Spanish lentils work well, too.

Start with 1 cup French lentils. Pick through them looking for stones or grit; wash and drain. Put the lentils in a saucepan with 3 cups water, 2 lightly smashed garlic cloves, 1 small hot chile, 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, and 1/2 tsp kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce the heat to low. Cook the lentils, partially covered, at a bare simmer until they are tender–about 15 minutes. Drain, and discard the garlic, chile, and herbs.

While the lentils cook, cut 2 or 3 carrots into 1/4-inch dice. Steam, or blanch in salted boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and cool. Finely chop a sweet onion to make about 1/2 cup. Cut 2 or 3 sun-dried tomatoes into thin strips. Roughly chop 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves and 1/2-cup cilantro.

Make the vinaigrette: With a mortar and pestle, mash 1 garlic clove with 1/4 tsp kosher salt to make a paste. Transfer to a small bowl and add 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1 Tbs sherry or balsamic vinegar. Stir and set aside 5 minutes. Dry-roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed and 1/2 tsp coriander seed on a small skillet over medium heat. Grind the spices to a fine powder and add to the garlic mixture. Whisk in 1/4 tsp black pepper, 2 Tbs finely chopped mint (or 1 tsp dried mint), and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil.

Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss the lentils with the chopped vegetables and herbs. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix gently to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Variations and additions: diced red bell pepper (raw or roasted) instead of carrots, chopped fresh tomatoes instead of dried, toasted walnuts or sunflower seeds, dried cranberries or currants. Dress it up, or dress it down–just sweet onion, sherry vinegar, chopped fresh thyme, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Beany Spreads and Dips

Beans

Eating with your hands is fun, and people all over the world seem to like to wrap little bits of food in soft flatbreads, or dip a crisp chip into something delicious, and pop it in their mouth. Bean dips go perfectly with flatbread eating–they blend happily with herbs and spices and fresh lemon or lime juice, and the savory mixture won’t fall off the cracker on the way to your mouth.

Dried beans cooked simply with a bay leaf or two, whole garlic cloves, and a small dried chile are full of satisfying, earthy flavor. Making dips and spreads from freshly cooked dried beans (or canned beans, for that matter) is a great place to start experimenting with fresh herbs and spices, transforming the beans into intriguing blends of contrasting tastes. Bean dip, a couple of colorful fresh salsas, some crumbled or grated cheese, and a stack of tortillas or flatbreads makes a beautiful, flavorful meal.

Using dried beans takes a little planning. I like to soak beans 4 to 12 hours before cooking them, but the “quick-soak” method works just as well. Put the beans in a large pot with water to cover by 4 inches. Bring the water to a boil, cover the pot, and turn off the heat, and let sit for one hour. The beans should be plumped out, without wrinkled skin. Drain the soaked beans, rinse, then return them to the pot with fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the beans gently until tender, 1 to 1/2 hours. Add salt near the end of the cooking time, after the beans have softened. Keep the pot partially covered, and check occasionally to see that the water level is above the beans.

Although only 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked beans (1 cup dried beans will make about 3 cups cooked) are needed to make a batch of dip, I like to cook 2 to 4 cups of dried beans at a time and freeze the extra beans in their cooking liquid in pint or quart-size containers.

Canned beans are fine for making spread and dips, and one or two 15-oz cans will make a generous amount. Drain the liquid (no need to rinse), but be sure to taste for salt before adding any more to the recipe.

Hummus

Hummus

Hummus has many incarnations, but that is part of fun of making your own–there are so many ways to tweak it. Here is a basic starting point: Using a food processor, puree 1 1/2 cups (one 15 oz can) of drained, cooked chickpeas with 4 Tbs fresh lemon juice and 2 or more garlic cloves. Add chickpea liquid as needed to make a creamy puree. Add 2 or3 Tbs sesame butter (tahini) and salt to taste. Add more lemon juice to taste.

Now you can play around. Add spices like cayenne or other hot chile, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, sumac, cumin, or coriander… chopped fresh herbs like parsley, coriander leaves, mint, chervil, arugula, or chives…chopped olives, roasted red pepper, artichoke hearts, or sundried tomatoes. More unconventionally, stir in chopped cooked broccoli, spinach, chard, or garlicky mustard greens.

Put the hummus in a bowl and drizzle the top with extra virgin olive oil. Serve the hummus with flatbread or crackers or in a wrap or sandwich.

Bessara

Fava Bean Dip with Chermoula

When I cooked fava beans to make the Fava e Cicorie dish we ate in Southern Italy, I used some of them to make a spicy dip. Bessara is the name of Moroccan bean puree descibed in the wonderful cookbook, Flatbreads and Flavors, written by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I used the name and the Moroccan seasoning mixture known as Chermoula to flavor the dip.

Cook 1 cup (or more) dried, peeled yellow fava beans by the method described above. Or use canned peeled fava beans. Or substitute dried or canned red kidney or small red beans, as Alford and Duguid recommend.You will need 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked beans. If you use canned beans, drain most of the liquid off and add it back in only if needed.

Make the chermoula: Dry-roast 1/2 tsp coriander seed and 1/4 tsp black pepper corns on a small iron skillet over medium-low heat one to two minutes. Shake the pan often so that the seeds do not burn. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder, cool, and grind to a powder. Roast 3/4 tsp cumin seeds 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add 2 Tbs olive oil to the pan and turn off the heat. Stir in 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp cayenne, and the ground coriander and black pepper. Allow to steep 10 to 15 minutes. In a mortar (or on a cutting board), mash 2 or 3 garlic cloves with 1/4 tsp coarse salt to make a paste. Mix the garlic paste with 2 Tbs. fresh lemon or lime juice in a small bowl. Add 3 Tbs finely chopped shallot or onion, 1 1/2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and 1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro. Combine the spice- oil and the garlic-herb mixture.

Puree or mash the cooked beans (if using canned beans, drain off most of the liquid). Stir the chermoula into the beans. Adjust the seasoning…more salt, extra lime or lemon juice, cayenne. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herb leaves on top.

Frijolemole

Black Bean Dip

Mole is a Mexican sauce of chiles, spices, garlic, and onion, often thickened with toasted nuts or seeds…a concoction of infinite variations. This dip uses the ingredients of a simple mole to infuse black turtle beans with flavor.

Roasting SpicesPrepare the flavoring: Heat an iron skillet over medium heat. Dry roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1/4 tsp fennel seed, 1/4 tsp black pepper corns, and 2 whole cloves 30 to 40 seconds, shaking the pan to keep the seeds from burning. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Cool and grind to a powder. Dry roast two 1/4-inch slices of a medium-size white onion and 4 whole unpeeled garlic cloves on the skillet over medium-low heat until toasty-brown and softened, about 15 minutes. Chop 2 or 3 plum tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice. Finely chop 1 or 2 jalapenos and 2 scallions. Roughly chop 1/3 cup cilantro leaves.

Make the puree: Put 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked black beans in a blender or food processor. Add the dry-roasted onion and peeled garlic cloves, the spice mix, and 1 canned chipotle chile (optional, but very good). Process to a smooth puree. Transfer the puree to a bowl and stir in the chopped vegetables and salt to taste. Add the cilantro and 2 Tbs or more fresh lime juice. Stir and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with a couple Tbs toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds.

Variations: Replace the jalapeno with finely chopped Anaheim or New Mexico red chiles for less heat and more color. Skip the dry roasting and add the finely chopped white onion and garlic raw for a sharper flavor. Or, go the other way and roast the chiles and tomatoes as well as the onion and garlic…it’s all good.

Quick Pickled Red Onions

Pickled Onions

The perfect condiment to serve with bean spreads! Cut in half and thinly slice two medium-sized red onions (about 2 cups). Parboil the onion slices in salted, boiling water 20 to 30 seconds. Transfer to a colander, rinse with cold water, and drain.

Dry roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed and 1/3 tsp black pepper corns on an iron skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant. Transfer to a mortar and grind coarsely.

Put the onion in a small bowl with the crushed spices and 1/4 tsp salt. Add 1/2-cup cider or rice vinegar and stir well. Add water to barely cover the onions. Cover and let stand one or more hours. Refrigerated, the onions will keep several weeks.

Even Quicker Pickled Onions

Thinly slice 2 medium red onions (about 2 cups). Place the onions in a colander and toss well with 1 Tbs coarse kosher salt. Leave to drain 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse in cold water and dry in a salad spinner or towel. Mix together 1/2 tsp sugar and 3 Tbs cider or rice vinegar. Put the onions in a bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar. Add chopped fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, Thai basil, or lemon thyme and a sprinkle of cayenne, if you like.

Antipasti: Welcome to the table!

Antipasti are a brilliant invitation to a meal, or a meal in itself. I love eating this way–little plates of savory tid-bits to choose from, mixing contrasting flavors, texture and color as you take each bite. It reminds you that you’re hungry, and that food is glorious. Cured meats, fresh and aged cheeses, grilled and marinated vegetables, pickles, cooked greens, salads of tomatoes and arugula, olives…a single dish or many may appear on the antipasto table. The preparations are typically simple, and the flavors vibrant and enticing.

Antipasti with Bread

For our first meal at Tenuta SantArcangelo, our host Gerardo went all out with the antipasti offerings. The table looked like a promotional display for all the products of Southern Italy…a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and salumi, fresh mozzarella and ciocavallo cheese…an onion fritatta…a basket of bruschetta, and a bowl of fresh diced tomatoes. Then, because Gerardo knew that I am very fond of vegetables, he brought in a plate if pickled wild asparagus, a saute of sweet peppers with onion, and another dish of lambasconi (a slightly bitter bulb of wild hyacinth) with hot pepper and pancetta. Potatoes with aglio, olio, e pepperoncino (garlic, olive oil, and hot pepper) and broccoli given the same treatment followed shortly. This was not the whole meal, but you can see how it easily could be.

Bruschetta is simply grilled bread– a good place to start. You need a loaf of rustic Italian bread, a crusty baguette, or ciabatta and extra virgin olive oil. Cut the bread into slices 1/2-inch thick, brush them with oil, and toast on an outdoor or stovetop grill on both sides. Drizzle with more garlic-infused oil, or use your bruschetta to hold one of the following toppings.

Tomato Salad*Tomato salad: We had this tomato salad with bread every morning at Serra Gambetta. To make it, dice perfectly ripe tomatoes, sprinkle them with coarse salt and a bit of dried oregano, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Mix gently.

Variations: add finely chopped garlic, replace the oregano with torn fresh basil leaves, or toss the tomatoes with chopped arugula and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

*Roasted red pepper spread: mix roasted red peppers (1 cup chopped) with sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes (1/2 cup chopped), caramelized onion (1/2 cup), roasted garlic, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, a little salt and some hot chile flakes. Chop coarsely in a food processor or by hand and stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Pepperonata with Capers and Olives: Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with 1/2 cup chopped onion over medium heat. Cook 3 or 4 minutes until the onion softens. Raise the heat a bit and stir in 3 or 4 (about 1 lb.) diced sweet red peppers. Sauté, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes, until the peppers are tender. Stir in 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbs rinsed capers, and 1/4 cup coarsely chopped olives, cook 1 minute. Stir in 2 or 3 Tbs chopped parsley. Remove from the heat and season with red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste.

Antipasti Table VariationsVariations: Sauté sliced mushrooms with the peppers. Add 1 or 2 chopped anchovy fillets when you add the garlic.

*Green Olive-Artichoke Tapenade: Mix together 12 chopped green olives, 4-6 chopped marinated artichoke hearts, 3-4 chopped oven-dried (or sun-dried in oil) tomatoes, 1 Tbs. capers, 1 finely chopped garlic clove, 4 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley leaves, and 1 Tbs chopped fresh mint. Stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Herbed Cheese: Mix 1 cup fresh ricotta or goat cheese with 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 or 2 Tsp. chopped fresh mint, 1 tsp. lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper.

*White Bean Puree: Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft. Add 1 tbs. chopped garlic and 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes and stir 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked white beans. Stir to coat the beans well and cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes to let the beans absorb the flavors. Season with salt to taste. Put the beans and 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley in a food processor and process to a coarse puree.

*Sauté of Greens: Steam or parboil a bunch of chicory, chard, kale, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens until tender (3 to 5 minutes). Heat chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil 1-2 minutes. Stir in the chopped greens to coat with oil and continue to cook over low heat until tender. Beat 2 eggs with 2 Tbs grated Parmesan. Stir the egg mixture into the greens; cook just until the eggs are set. Or leave the egg out–it’s good that way, too.

*Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini, and Peppers: Heat a grill to medium-high heat, or use a stovetop grill pan or broiler. Slice the eggplant 1/2-inch thick. Slice the zucchini lengthwise 1/4-inch thick. Brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill the sliced vegetables 3-4 minutes per side, until they have dark grill marks and are tender. Grill the whole peppers (or roast them over the flame of a gas burner), rotating them so that their skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a dishtowel to cool, 10-15 minutes. Peel, seed and slice them into narrow strips. Arrange the vegetables on a platter. Drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a few drops red wine vinegar. Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint. Roast the vegetables in a hot oven if you don’t want to grill.

*Marinated Olives: Mix green and black olives with enough extra virgin olive oil to coat them well. Sprinkle with orange zest, crushed fennel seed, red chile flakes (or minced fresh hot chile), and minced garlic. Toss and marinate several hours before serving.

Seeds from Italy

My seeds from Italy came in the mail! The packages are big and beautiful, with gorgeous photos and information printed in many languages. The new owners of the Seeds from Italy Company, Dan Nagengast and Lynn Byczynski, are experienced flower and market gardeners, so their e- newsletter is full of useful information and tips to make you want to start planting RIGHT AWAY! It also makes you want to try all 18 zucchini varieties and 31 chicories, not to mention the wonderful peppers, tomatoes, and beans…each essential to a particular regional cuisine. “In Italy, growing vegetables is not thought of as a separate activity from cooking”, they explain. Of course not!

Italian Seeds

I ordered fennel, so I can make fennel gratin…wild fennel, so I will have the seed for authentic Southern Italian flavor…two kinds of cima di rapa (broccoli rabe, or raab) for dragging through garlic oil (aglia olio)…three chicories for salad and braising…. my favorite sweet pepper, “Corno di Toro”…and borlotto beans for my favorite bean soup made with freshly shelled beans. I couldn’t resist the name, “Fagiolo rampicante borlotto lingua di fuoco”. They turned out to be the same bean I have been growing for years that is called “Tongue of Fire” in U.S. seed catalogs! Borlotto beans are also known as “cranberry beans” or “Roman beans”.

 Fresh Shell Bean Soup, or Soup au Pistou

BeansHow do you make this wonderful soup? Most places you will have to grow your own beans to have fresh shelled beans, unless you live around a lot of Italians. Any fresh shell beans can be used, but the Borlotto (or Cranberry) beans have a unique, almost chestnut-like flavor. The beans are ready in late summer or early fall; they are big and plump and beautifully colored with dark red streaks and speckles. The shelled beans freeze very successfully in tightly sealed freezer bags. If fresh or frozen beans aren’t available, dried beans can be used.

If you are using dried beans, soak 1 1/2 cups beans for 8 hours or so in water to cover by 3 inches. Drain and rinse before cooking. A quicker method: bring the beans to a boil in water to cover by 3 inches, turn off the heat, cover, and let sit 1 to 2 hours. Drain and rinse before cooking. Put the soaked beans in a large pot with fresh water to cover by 1 inch with one sprig fresh rosemary, 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 small hot chile, and 3 smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and partially cover. Maintain a gentle simmer until the beans begin to soften, 30 to 40 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp salt and continue to cook until the beans are tender but still firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Test several beans to check for doneness. The cooked beans will be added into the soup.

To make the soup with fresh beans, you will need 3 cups shelled beans. Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven with 1/4 cup diced pancetta or bacon (this is optional but recommended). Cook over low heat until the meat begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Add 1 large chopped onion, 2 diced carrots, 1 small diced fennel bulb, and 2 diced celery stalks. Stir to coat with oil and cook, stirring frequently until they soften, about 6 minutes. Add 3 or 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary, 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme, a pinch of red chile flakes, and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir 1 minute. Add 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned), 1 1/2 cups diced potato   (or sliced green cabbage, if you prefer), and the shelled beans. Stir until the vegetables are heated, about 2 minutes. Add 1 quart homemade chicken or vegetable broth and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook, partially covered, until the beans are tender, 20 to 40 minutes. If you have started with dry beans, add the cooked beans and as much of their cooking broth as you like into the soup and simmer 5 to 10 minutes to meld the flavors. To thicken the soup, mash or puree some of the beans and stir them back into the soup. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve with Pistou and crusty bread.

ParsleyPistou, or pesto: In the late summer or fall, the pistou can be made with fresh basil leaves, but in winter or spring, I use parsley or a combination of parsley and sorrel or fennel fronds. Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, make a paste with 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of kosher salt. Add 2 cups fresh basil, parsley, or a combination of parsley, fennel, and sorrel leaves and pound or process to a rough paste. Add 2 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.