Beans are a staple food of the Tuscan area of Italy, although they are eaten throughout the country. The most popular are the red and cream coloured borlotti, the small white cannellini -- similar to our kidney beans -- the larger toscanelli and fagioli coll'occhio (black eyed beans). Also used are ceci (chick peas) and fave (fava beans).

They are all used interchangeably in stews, with pasta or in soups. In addition, cannellini are served also as a side dish, with the simple addition of extra virgin olive oil.

Beans, not only wonderful in soups and stews, can also be used as part of a hearty salad such as tonno e fagioli (tuna and beans) or fagioli all'uccelletto (beans cooked like little birds). For the latter, you combine cooked cannellini beans with chopped fresh garlic, fresh sage and tomatoes, and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until everything is tender and aromatic. Serve with a crusty bread and sausages.

In summer and early autumn, you can sometimes find fresh beans still in the pods at some farmers markets and such. Dried, though, is the way most beans are sold. Most packaged varieties will have a "best before" date marked on them, if you are lucky enough to find them loose, they have a storage life of several weeks, even months if kept in a cool, dry, dark place. Canned beans are also available although these are not as desirable because the texture cannot be controlled and you will sometimes find them mushy. They are, in addition, more expensive than the dried beans.

All dried beans should be soaked for at least eight hours in cold water before cooking. If necessary, they can be soaked in boiling water for four hours instead. Either way, discard the soaking water before continuing to cook your beans. (Fresh beans need no soaking.)

Cook the beans in plenty of unsalted boiling water. Boil briskly for ten minutes (this ensures that the toxins which lead to stomachache are destroyed) then continue to cook at a simmer for one to two hours, depending on the size and freshness of the bean.

Any flavourings can be added to the cooking liquid that you wish, just stay away from salt or anything acidic such as tomato or vinegar until the beans are cooked through or they will never become tender. For a hearty stew, after the initial ten minute boiling, pancetta, garlic and herbs may be added to the beans and they can be baked slowly in the oven.

Fava beans are best eaten fresh from their green pod. Their slightly bittersweet flavour goes well when eaten raw with prosciutto, salami and pecorino cheese. Later in the season, the larger fave can be cooked, skinned and seasoned with ham or pancetta. Dried fave must be soaked and have their skins removed before cooking. They are great in soups or stews and require about 45 minutes of cooking time.

Ceci (chick peas) are round and golden in colour and can be bought dried or canned and ready to use. They have a distinct nutty flavour. They are cooked like other beans although they require twelve hours of soaking, and are an integral part of pasta e ceci, a substantial dish of pasta and chick peas in a tomato sauce enlivened with Parmesan cheese. They are also quite good cold in a salad. Try dressing them with lemon juice, chopped fresh herbs and olive oil.

Lenticchie (lentils) are always sold dried. They can be mixed with pasta or rice for a wonderful first course dish. They also are the perfect accompaniment for sausage, ham hocks, or cotechino. In Umbria they make a minestra (soup) called imbrecciata with chickpeas, lentils and other beans.

Lentil Soup with Tomatoes

A classic rustic Italian soup flavoured with rosemary.
  • 1 cup dried green or brown lentils
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 strips bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 14oz can plum tomatoes
  • 8 cups vegetable stock
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper

Place the lentils in a bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak for two hours. Rinse and drain well.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook for about three minutes, then stir in the onion and cook for five minutes more, until softened. Stir in the celery, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves and lentils. Toss gently until thoroughly coated in the oil.

Pour in the tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, half cover the pan, and simmer for about one hour or until the lentils are perfectly tender.

Remove the bay leaves and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with crusty bread.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours

Minestra di Riso e Fave

  • 2 lb fave in their shells or 14oz shelled frozen broad beans, thawed
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 cup arborio or other non-parboiled rice
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Shell the beans if they are fresh. Bring a large pan of water to a boil, and blanch the beans for 3 - 4 minutes. Rinse under cold water, and peel.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, and cook over medium heat until softened. Add the beans and cook five minutes more, stirring often. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add the tomatoes and continue cooking for five more minutes, still stirring.

Add the rice and the butter stirring until the butter is melted, then gradually add the water until all the water is used. Adjust seasoning and continue to cook until the rice is tender. Serve sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 30 - 45 minutes