Italian beans produce creamy, warming soups
A steaming pot of beans is a classic the world over for chasing away winter blues. In Italy they call beans the poor man’s meat. Italian dry beans are high in fiber and soluble fiber. Italians from Tuscany are known an “mangiafagioli,” or “bean-eaters.”
Soluble fiber helps lower blood cholesterol. Italian beans are also high in complex carbohydrates, folate, iron and protein. Not only are beans high in protein, but they lend a true “meaty” taste to classic winter Italian meals such as “fagiuoli all’uccelletto” (white beans simmered with garlic, sage, olive oil, tomato sauce, and sometimes sausages), or the hearty minestrone soup. In addition to hot dishes, Italians use beans to top green salads, mixed into pasta salads and served as a side dish.
The New England bean sandwich has a counterpart in Italy with mashed beans spread over toasted bruschetta.
Borlotti or cranberry beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are white with red streaks. When cooked, they lose their stripes but keep their creamy, nutty flavor. Borlotti beans are often used in pasta e fagioli where they add a velvety texture to the famous soup.
Cannellini beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are large, creamy white kidney beans with a very mild flavor. Their thin skin holds up in cooking so they are used whole in soups, stews and salads.
Before the discovery of the Americas, the only beans in Italy were fava beans. Dried fava beans have a deep, rich, earthy flavor.
There are many varieties of each of these Italian beans, so you want to order seeds early.
Thompson and Morgan (www.tmseeds.com) offers seeds to the dwarf Borlotti bean Splendido. This bush bean has wide, five-inch-long pinkish-red pods that each hold six or seven red-streaked, cream-colored Borlotti beans. You can pick the tender young pods of Splendido to use as green beans, but they really are best as dried beans.
Seeds from Italy (www.growitalian.com) offers both bush and pole varieties of Borlotto beans. Their Climbing Borlotto Bean Lingua de Fuoco has the classic red-streaked white pods, with tan beans mottled in red. These are strong growers that yield huge amounts of dried beans.
Many seed companies offer generic Borlotti (or Borlotto) beans, such as Victory Seeds (www.Victoryseeds.com).
High Mowing Seeds (802-472-6174) offers organic Silver Cloud Cannellini Bean seeds. Silver Cloud not only has higher yields, but more disease resistance. The smooth, buttery beans grow on easy-to-pick upright bush habit plants.
Plant Italian beans after the last frost and when your soil has warmed to about 70 degrees F. Soak the seeds for a few hours or overnight before planting. Sows the seeds one-and-a-half inches apart in rows 14 to 36 inches apart. If you grow pole beans, set the poles or trellises out right after planting so the beans can grow up them.
Beans grow best in average soil but they will even grow in poor soil, because they are legumes and can produce their own nitrogen. Italian beans are legumes that convert nitrogen from the air into usable ammonia nitrogen for the plant. Coat your Italian bean seeds with commercially prepared rhizobia bacteria, called an inoculant, before planting.
Thin your bean plants so they get good air circulation to cut down on possible mildew or molds.
Let your Italian dry beans stay on the plants until the seeds rattle in the pods. Then pull up the entire plant by hand and hang upside down in a dry place such as a garage, basement, barn or shed.
Split the dry pods open by hand and clean the beans. To kill any bean weevils or other pests, try freezing the beans before storing them in airtight jars.
Because beans are self-pollinating you can save seeds from your plants for next year’s crop. Plant Italian dry beans this summer and you will have the luxury of hearty, creamy Italian soups and stews next year. Add home-grown garlic and you have a meal that will bring a touch of the Mediterranean sun to the bleakest wintry day.