My farmers’ market is, at the moment, overrun with beans ~ green, wax, Romano, and the variety known here in Virginia as October beans. October beans also go by the name of cranberry beans and, in Italian, borlotti beans. They are classic soup beans.
A certain amount of confusion surrounds these beans so I’d like to clear that up. October beans are shell beans. Unlike the more tender green beans and wax beans, which are types of snap beans, shell beans are more mature, with tougher pods that are inedible. Like English peas in spring, they must be removed from their pods.
On the other hand, although they may resemble dried beans, shell beans are fresh. So while they need shelling, they don’t need soaking. They cook quickly, in 30 to 45 minutes. In addition to the cranberry beans pictured above, you might, if you’re lucky, come across a less common, violet-streaked heirloom variety called bird egg beans. Treat these latter beans as you would cranberry beans.
Which is to say, cook them in a pot of simmering water together with some aromatics ~ crushed garlic, a wedge of onion, and a handful of herbs (sage, rosemary, parsley, maybe a bay leaf) until they are tender. They will lose their pretty mottles and streaks during cooking, but on the upside they will turn creamy and their flavor will be enriched by their herb-spiked broth. Salt them towards the end of cooking and, when done, remove them from the broth with a slotted spoon. Discard the aromatics but save the broth. You can use it to moisten the beans or to turn those beans into soup.
If you’re serving the cooked beans on their own, add a splash or two of the reserved broth, salt and pepper (or some minced chile pepper), and, if you like, some thinly sliced red onion (I do). Drizzle generously with top-notch olive oil. Here’s what the dressed beans look like:
These beans are a wonderful side dish to many mains ~ sausages, roast chicken, lamb chops, pork chops, a spinach frittata or platter of cheese and salumi.
But, on a rainy day such as we are having here today and such as is forecast through the weekend, what I really want these beans for is soup, a ‘nice dish’ (as my mother would say) of pasta e fagioli. I have countless variations on this soup. It’s one of those loosey-goosey recipes that takes shape as I’m making it. Sometimes I start with diced pancetta. I might add diced tomatoes, or cut-up green beans, or sliced zucchini. Here’s my most recent version, the one you see in the picture at the top of this post, and below in the recipe. It has carrots, kale, onion, potato and pasta. And, of course, beans.
I always look forward to the first appearance of cranberry beans at my local farmers' market. Here in Virginia, they arrive towards the end of September and are usually available until the latter half of October. Look for mature, slightly dried pods but make sure that they are free of brown or soft spots. Shell beans freeze beautifully so if you are inclined, buy an extra pound or two, shell them, and store them in the freezer, either in a tightly lidded container or in a zipper-lock freezer bag.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion or 2 red spring onions
- 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs ~ parsley, sage, rosemary
- 1 large carrot, cut into dice
- 1 yellow potato, peeled and cut into dice
- 1 bunch Tuscan kale, coarsely shredded
- 1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes (optional)
- About 3 cups cooked October beans (1 pound in the pod, about 1 1/2 cups raw shelled) plus their cooking broth (see Note)
- 4 cups (or more) vegetable broth or water, or a combination
- 1 piece Parmigiano rind
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups large soup pasta, such as shells or cavatelli
- Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Freshly grated parmigiano cheese, for serving
Measure the oil into a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until the onion is softened but not browned. Stir in the herbs, and then the carrots, potatoes and kale. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and let the vegetables cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the kale has wilted. Stir once or twice during this time. Stir in the tomatoes, if using, and cook 5 minutes more.
Add the beans and their broth to the pot and stir gently. Pour in 4 cups of vegetable broth or water, toss in the parm rind, and raise the heat to medium-high. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Stir in the pasta and cook until it is just a little past al dente. This could take 15 minutes or so. Cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the pasta; also keep in mind that pasta in soup tends to take longer to cook than pasta in plain boiling water. If the soup seems too thick as the pasta is cooking, add more broth or water.
Remove the soup from the heat and let it sit for just a minute or two before ladling into bowls. Drizzle a little of your best olive oil over each serving and sprinkle a spoonful of cheese on top.
NOTE To cook the shelled beans, put them in a heavy-bottomed pot with water to cover by one inch. Toss in a couple of herb sprigs, a crushed garlic clove, and a wedge of onion. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover partially, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the beans are tender but still hold their shape. Season with salt during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Remove from the heat, and discard the herb sprigs, garlic and onion. If not using immediately, let the beans cool in the broth, then store the beans in the broth in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.