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
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
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
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.