losing my marbles


Years ago I signed up for a book club. Not a book club as we know them nowadays, meaning a group of people who have ostensibly read the same book meeting to discuss it while drinking the same number of bottles as participants (or maybe that is just us), but a book sales club. This book sales club ran adverts in the Guardian newspaper and I, aged eighteen and in possession of my first cheque book and ignoring the suspicious mutterings of others, was seduced by the introductory offer of a free dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia of opera and two ‘beautifully bound‘ editions: Keat’s poetry and Jane Austen’s Emma. I signed up and sent off my subscription fee in the form of a cheque for a tiny sum.

My free books arrived and they were, as promised, beautifully bound. I spent an afternoon drunk on the smell of virgin books, plastic bubble wrap and youthful hubris. I also had a sip of the catalogue listing other beautifully bound books I might like to order. Which I set aside of course, I wasn’t about to be seduced by any of that! I’d paid my fee, I’d received my free books, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. There was a printed sheet at the bottom of the box, but I didn’t read it, after all, who needs small print when you have Ode to a Nightingale, Emma Woodhouse and a small reference library?


A month later another box of books arrived and a letter congratulating me on my decision to keep the limited edition books along with a bill for said books and three new even more bloody beautifully bound volumes they thought I might be interested in. I panic opened the whole lot, popped an entire sheet of bubble wrap in record time, read the small print, panicked some more and then took drastic action and hid the box under the bed. I did the same with the box and bill a month later.

I can’t actually remember how everything was resolved, teary admissions, regression, trips to the post office, my dad and his cheque book. Why I bring this up today is because as I dug marbled beans from their equally marbled pods a few days ago and while Luca played with an electrical socket, I remembered the infamous book club and books, one of which is on my shelf here in Rome. Books whose outsides are cloth bound and inside covers are a double spread of marbled paper;  exquisite aqueous designs in ivory and crimson that mottle, swirl and swell and are reminiscent of borlotti beans. Books like beans, or beans like books, or simply a mottled and tenuous link.

I’ve cooked borlotti beans twice this week. The first batch was fresh and used to make pasta e fagioli. The second batch was dried Borlotto di Lamon from Veneto, more subdued in colour: beige and burgundy but almost as lovely as their fresh cousins. The name borlotti by the way, come from the verb borlare or tumble and evokes the way the oldest plants grow.


Unlike fresh borlotti, dried beans need soaking for at least eight hours and ideally overnight before being brought to the boil in fresh water and then simmered until tender and, having lost their mottled charm, turned soft chestnut-brown. They are then ready to be simmered in tomato sauce: fagioli al pomodoro.

I’ve already sung the praises of my mouli/food mill/passa verdure, my favorite kitchen tool, more than once. I will again. Nothing, except maybe a fine sieve and some deft work with the back of a spoon, gives quite the same, smooth but distinct and grainy quality to plum tomatoes/soup/ poached fruit/ root vegetables as a food mill. For this recipe, the sophisticatedly named: beans in sauce, you need 500 g of milled plum tomatoes. Having milled, crushed or blended the tomatoes you then add them to a pan in which you have sautéed a small onion, a rib of celery and a some chopped flat leafed parsley in plenty of olive oil.


Once you have united the beans with the sauce, you stir and let the pan bubble gently for another 10 minutes or so. You may need to add a little more water as the final dish should be fluid (but not thin and runny) and roll easily from the spoon. Be generous with the seasoning. The beans are good straight away, but even better after a few hours, better still the next day when the flavours have settled and the beans have absorbed even more of sauce.

Borlotti beans, cooked until tender, so creamy and nutty and tasting somewhere between a chestnut and a kidney bean, simmered in well-seasoned smooth tomato sauce are good, tasty and satisfying to both make and eat. This is food that pleases (rather than impresses), food that calms even the most hyperactive two-year old and a mother who keeps losing her marbles.


Fagioli al pomodoro – beans with tomato

Adapted from The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen Fant. The original recipe is for fresh beans and also includes 50 g of prosciutto fat (or guanciale) which I am sure makes it even more delicious – not that it wasn’t delicious without. It really is worth seeking out best quality plum tomatoes and beans. Three sage leaves added to the beans while they cook gives a lovely musky flavour to the beans.

serves 4

  • 1 kg of fresh borlotti in their pods or 300 g dried borlotti beans soaked overnight
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or lard
  • a small onion
  • a small rib of celery
  • a few fat stalks of flat leaved parsley
  • 500 g best quality plum tomatoes, milled or crushed
  • salt and pepper

If you are using dried beans soak them in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours or overnight. Drain the soaked beans, put them back in a heavy- based pan, cover by at least two inches with fresh water, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the beans for one hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from an hour to three to cook. Have patience. Keep the beans at a simmer and taste as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally. Add a pinch of salt after an hour of cooking. Once the beans are cooked, pull them from the heat and leave them to cook in their cooking water.

If you are using fresh beans, shell them and then boil them in salted water for about 25 minutes or until tender.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Finely chop the celery and parsley – both stalk and leaf. Warm the olive oil in a deep saute pan and add the onion, celery and parsley then saute over a gentle flame unit soft and translucent.

Mill, crush or blend the tomatoes until they are smooth and add to the onion, celery and parsley. Stir and season with salt and pepper and leave the pan simmering for 15 minutes. Add the drained beans (keep the broth), stir and leave cooking for another 10 minutes, adding a little of the bean broth if nesseary. Check seasoning. Allow the beans to sit for 10 minutes (or for hours) or so before serving.

These beans are even better the next day, maybe even better the day after that. If your kitchen is cool you can leave them overnight in the coolest corner and then reheat them gently the next day before serving., If you keep them longer than a day, store them in the fridge but remember to pull them out an hour or so before you want to gently re-heat and then eat.

We had our beans with fried eggs and pizza bianca. I am sure they would also go well with sausages or pork chop.



Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, food, Roman food, supper dishes, tomato sauce

35 responses to “losing my marbles

  1. AntonyM

    You had me at the box of books… the delicious beans are just an add-on. More books, I say!

  2. Lovely! This will get me through some thesis-writing this weekend 🙂

    • rachel

      I wish I could send you some biscuits (ugly but tasty ones that I am testing for the book ) to get you through too. Hope you have a productive weekend.

  3. I did the same sort of thing with Readers Digest after being wooed by their blandishments. – Turned into a nightmare, not only would they not stop sending them and sending bills, but they divulged no address to contact to stop the deluge of expensive and unwanted books and videos coming.. In the end I wrote an article which was published, and they came out of the woodwork !
    It was a lovely intro to your delectable bean recipe, which is now in my pipeline of irresistible recipes to try…lovely thank you…

    • rachel

      They are masters of deceit, If I remember correctly, when I did confess the books under the bed, we couldn’t find an address easily either. A tenuous link too, although the beans do look exactly like the inside cover marbling. I hope you try Rx

  4. Eha

    Oh, half my reference library, all beautifully bound, is from the same firm in England. Now, I am the most honest person in the world, but if a firm opens a door . . . I DO read the smallest of small print always . . . . so got half by reference library the first time around ~ fulfilled my set obligation of four more volumes during the year . . . resigned . . . .they kept on offering more wonderful reference books and we went through all of the same for the second yer. Wonderful library for about $200! Well, they offered!!!

    • rachel

      I still can’t read the small print and I still get myself into the most ridiculous muddles on a regular basis. You, on the other hand, sound like a pro, brava x

      • Eha

        🙂 ! Believe me Rachel, if you are the only child of army/law on the one side and financial controller [Mom, would you believe ~ oh those days one used an abacus and not a computer programme!] on the other the small print is what you read instead of children’s story books!! And I am actually not exaggerating!!

  5. I’ve never dared allowed myself be seduced by That Book Compnay for fear of telling a tale just like yours. But I do allow myself to be seduced by borlotti beans. Wonderful things. Thanks for reminding me.

    • rachel

      Brava, they were full of deceit and false promises…that said I really should of read at least something…….The borlotti, yes, wonderful things and so tasty too. Thank you for reading

  6. I love beautifully bound books and borlotti beans! I make fagioli al pomodoro with borlotti beans at home all the time! Only I add loads of fresh sage, garlic and grated Grana Padano to mine. 🙂

    • rachel

      Thank you so much as you have just reminded me of a recipe note to put some sage in when you cook the beans, something I did the first time (nice musky notes) but not the second I made this dish. I am a big fan of sage, particularly with beans

  7. Oh how I love those mottled flyleafs (leaves?, which one is it, do you think?), I also love borlotti beans. We grew some again this year, enough for two meals of loveliness. I did something very similar to this, but without the food mill. I still haven’t managed to buy one.

    • rachel

      I am not sure, but then you must have noticed my spelling is dreadful, flyleaves maybe? You grew enough for two meals, bravii bravi (I think my mum got one bean two years in Row.) By the way, something we have never talked about – When are you all coming to Rome? It’s about time we all ate beans, gelato and walked and talked xx

      • Oh how I would love to… If we win the lottery we will. In the meantime if you ever find yourself with time to spare when over here it would be lovely to meet you and Luca somewhere in the middle, or grab a train to Shropshire. xx

  8. That box of books brought back painful memories from a similar service for buying music me and my sister signed up to when we were 11 and 12. I also cannot remember how this was resolved exactly but am glad we eventually got out of it (no doubt thanks to our parents).

    I love Borlotti beans – we got some fresh ones a few weeks ago and it must be the only beans I don’t mind podding because they are just so stunningly beautiful to look at (how sad they lose all that beauty on cooking!). I am a big fan of Food of Lazio and Rome – beautiful photography and fantastic recipes that simply work (and which have managed to convince my in-laws that I know enough about Italian food to prepare part of this year’s Easter spread!). Lovely looking dish – there is nothing quite as comforting as some well-cooked beans, perfectly creamy on the inside and swimming in enough sauce to leave a little puddle on the plate ‘per fare la scarpetta’.

    • rachel

      Just enough sauce to leave a puddle – that is the best description, that nice amount that isn’t swamping but enough to mop with bread – thank you. Firstly – brava, you have clearly arrived, Secondly – what will you prepare Rx

      • This year it was lasagne, for a manageable crowd but my boyfriend’s mum and sister are vegetarian … we settled on a vegetarian lasagne using finely diced aubergine (salted to drain out the excess water before slowly pan-fried in indecent amounts of olive oil) … while clearly vegetarian it was delicious nonetheless (and even the meat-eaters went for second helpings).

  9. If you hand’t written the source of this recipe, I would have called it British. As, curiously, it looks very similar to the recipe for stewed beans that my British aunt would make. Which perhaps is not British at all, but it is easy for me to make this connection in my mind. All in all, it is so interesting to see how many cultures have created delicious, filling, nutritious meals out of the humble bean. It really fascinates me – as you might know 🙂
    Fagioli di Lamon…Oh so good. Always my bean of choice.

    • rachel

      You are right, they do feel rather English, a sort of grown up baked bean, which makes them American I suppose. I love beans and I’m gald to live somewhere they are given such a starring role. I am making your Pasta e fagioli tomorrow xxx

  10. As a recently wed, soon-to-be-mother, I joined a cookbook-by-mail club in exactly the same way. I planned to receive the free books on offer, then cancel immediately thereafter. That isn’t what happened. The books kept arriving, I couldn’t figure out how to cancel and the whole thing just snowballed. I still twitch when I think of the guilt–and the guilty pleasure–of receiving these books each month, books I wouldn’t have bought at the bookstore but squandered money we didn’t have through the usurious club mechanism. I still have the books, but they’re boxed up and living in a storage locker in the U.S. while we are now cookbook-free in Italy.

    • rachel

      I am glad not to be the only one. They are clever those book clubs, knowing we get drunk on the smell of new book and printed page…Hope all is well in beautiful Puglia and you have both recovered from the vendemmia (I so enjoyed that post) x

  11. Thank you for sharing your book acquisition story. So glad your dad was able to bail you out no matter how painful it might have been! What a lesson… The beans sound terrific as all of your recipes do. I haven’t made beans in years but you have inspired me once again!

    • rachel

      I was eighteen, which is embarrassing, that said I still get bailed out with alarming regularity. Hope you do try the beans they are delicious and so simple. I just made more and we had them with sausages which was perfect.

  12. As readers, we’ve all been there. All of those plummy things we did want to read, followed by the boxes of obscure “modernist vampire” or “up-from-her-bootstraps” chic-lit novels. F***! Another one! At least you have the excuse of having been only 18–I started at 18 and went back to the trough many times before finally conceding that I was powerless before my addiction and would have to go cold turkey. It’s been 27 years, four days, five hours and seven minutes since I last joined a book club. Great recipe too. Ken

    • rachel

      Ha, you make me laugh. Do you have badge? It is a great recipe – all credit to the recipe. We had it again today with sausages, good ones, great November lunch

  13. I somehow always managed to resist those book clubs (although I am a member of one of the boozier variety!) but the binding and the marbled endpapers do sound very tempting…

  14. peppercornsinmypocket

    I’ve had the same book-club-panic-attack; the nature of fine prints, isn’t it? Here’s to books like beans that hide under beds 🙂
    Your fagioli al pomodoro looks as comforting as cloth covered books.

  15. You just reminded me about a bag of freshly shelled beans I stuck into the freezer a couple of weeks ago! And don’t get me started on “book clubs”: one of those hounded me for a few years after accepting a free (this one really was) book from them.

  16. Tamara

    I have almost the exact same story. Bought back memories for me! And promoted a text to my Dad 😃 Thanks for the trip down memory lane (and a beautiful recipe)

  17. Laura

    I love the marbled paper inside (too) fancy book covers as much as borlotti beans – and if all I ate to the end of days was every vegetable, legume, and grain “in umido” (as they call this lovely way of braising/stewing things in tomato sauce in tuscany) I would be a happy and content person.
    In other words: everything about this blog post rings true with me…

  18. Pingback: At the Immigrant's Table: Borlotti beans in tomato sauce

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s