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.
- 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.