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!
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
How 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.
Pistou, 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.