Bean Cuisine: Italians do it better

Italian cuisine is more than oodles of pasta noodles. Beans have a long history and remain a staple in every province. Fagioli are served in hole-in-the-wall bars and the finest trattorias, in farmhouse kitchens and high-rise apartment houses. There are Italian bean dishes for practically every course – as antipasti, in soup or with pasta for primi piatti, as secondi piatti in myriad meat and fish dishes, and infinite contorni, or side dishes.

To an Italian, fagioli implies cannellini beans, those white kidney-shaped beans with a delicate skin and vaguely nutty, sweet, creamy meat. Florentines love these beans so much that they adopted the adagio: Fiorentin mangia fagioli, lecca piatti e tovaglioli. (“The Florentine who eats white beans licks the plates and napkins, too.” More civilized than our crass bean ditty about tooting.)

Yet Italians keep a pulse on a multitude of beans – mottle-marked cranberry or borlotti beans; tiny lentils with pungent flavor and soft texture; luminescent lupini that look like oversized golden lima beans; the sexy ceci that we know as a chickpea, the pale gold pearl of beans; and the sweet fava or broad bean, whose young ones are so tender they can be eaten straight from pale green pods.

Bean paste is the basis for some great Italian starters. Cannellini beans, chickpeas and fava beans can be puréed and spread on crostini or crackers. Just add oil and pepper when puréeing or go flavor-crazy: garlic, fresh basil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and toasted pine nuts complement the nutty hint of chickpeas. An earthy combo is a purée of cannellini beans, garlic and black olives, served atop garlic toasts. For something more substantial and eye-catching, spread bruschetta with bean paste then top with mâche tossed in a classic vinaigrette. A simple bean paste with bread, when served with a platter of raw vegetables or a bowl of glistening sautéed greens, becomes a sophisticated yet uncontrived repast like purè di fave con cicoria, essentially mashed fava beans studded with croutons and served with braised chicory or dandelion greens, a typical appetizer from Puglia, the Italian boot heel.

If you’re just looking to nosh, lupini and fava beans are two standouts. Though not widely known in the U.S., lupini beans are typically eaten pickled as an antipasto. (See page 12 for how-tos.) Or get hold of some fresh early favas, and you won’t even have to peel them. Simply shell them from their pale green pods, dip them in coarse salt and eat with Pecorino cheese, or sauté with red onion, season with the standard oil-salt-pepper combo, garnish with parsley and mangia. For something a bit off-center, try a fava bean salad of Parmesan shards, freshly chopped savory and cooked fennel, thinly sliced. We promise there will be no leftovers.

Each region in Italy has a version of minestrone, basically a hearty vegetable soup that usually also contains cannellini beans and small pasta. The Milanese replace the pasta with rice, Genovese add pesto. Expand your Lenten Friday repertoire with a Tuscan white bean ribollita bread soup so thick the spoon stands upright.

Beans can assume a starring role in main dishes, or be supporting actors whose texture, flavor and color render a dish more complex and elegant. Elbow pasta or shells pair well with chickpeas seasoned with rosemary and garlic. Tortellini with rapini and cannellini beans is a beautiful pasta-bean-green trio; this time of year, fresh favas shine in a medley of spaghetti, prosciutto and bitter escarole.

Inexpensive, beans are a great meal extender for fish, poultry and meat. Sweet sausages with white beans and sautéed Swiss chard are a spring mainstay; in summer, switch the greens with crushed tomatoes. Calamari, shrimp, baby octopus – any of these little fishies can party on a plate of bursting cannellini beans.

Braising brings out beans’ deep, rich flavor and silky texture. A pot of beans, slowly cooked with cuts of meat or pork fatback, renders sinful bread-sopping juices. Fresh herbs are clean seasoning options: sage and crushed garlic go well with borlotti beans, bay leaves are a standard choice for garbanzos, and white beans merit fresh rosemary springs and a couple of cloves of fresh garlic.

In her culinary memoir A Thousand Days in Tuscany, Marlena de Blasi paints a rustic picture of Tuscan peasants braising beans. Into a bulbous terra-cotta wine bottle go beans, wine, olive oil, rosemary springs, garlic cloves and sage. The bottle gets plugged and placed in the soldering embers of a hearth to “cook through the night and are ready next morning (or afternoon or evening) to pour out into deep bowls over crusts of yesterday’s bread, the lush juices drenching and softening the bread. A final thread of oil, a few turns of the pepper grinder, a flask of red wine nearby, and a Tuscan is safe for another day.” When is the next flight to Florence?