Fresh Shell Bean Soup for Fall

shell bean soup 1

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.

October beans 2

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:

October beans 3

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.

Makes 4 servings

October Bean Soup

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.

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22 Responses to Fresh Shell Bean Soup for Fall

  1. Maria Speck October 11, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Beautiful post and recipe, Domenica! And the simple salad is a favorite in my house too. xx

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 9:46 am #

      Ciao Maria ~ thanks for dropping by. Of course, I always think of beautiful ancient grains when I think of you. I should have pointed out in the post that this soup is delicious with farro in place of the pasta. xo

  2. Adri October 11, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Yes, the beans are in! With each season farmers grow more and more varieties, especially heirlooms. It’s back to the future in the bean fields of America. That is a tempting soup, and the images here are truly wonderful. I fine most appealing your style of making the food you shoot the absolute center of attention; the few props you might occasionally are directly connected to the making or consuming of the dish. It is this pared down look that I have come to enjoy. Your shots are not still lifes, although they are beautiful enough to be considered as such. Somehow your eye catches and conveys the warmth and comforting nature of the food. That’s a gift.

    By the way, Bart always nabs the Parm rind before I can get to it. I have a bag of them in the freezer, yet somehow I always forget to add enough for two…

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 9:51 am #

      Adri, you are generous with your praise. There’s a simple (and practical) reason that I don’t do more food styling. I don’t know how. My photos are totally amateur, but I do enjoy taking pictures and always have, especially landscapes (not much to shoot here in suburbia, though!).

      As for the parm rind, I also keep a bag of them in the freezer. I’ve learned to put in two pieces, or to cut a larger one in half, so that both Scott and I get a little piece of the “prize.”

      As always, thanks for reading.

  3. staceysnacks October 11, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    I love any pasta fagioli, and especially this recipe!
    Can’t wait to try it with these beans which are new to me.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 9:52 am #

      Thank you Stacey. Hope you can find the beans. My sister in NJ says she’s not seen them at farmers’ markets, which is odd because there’s such a significant Italian (food) community in our Garden State.

  4. Majella Home Cooking October 11, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    Love these types of soups, Domenica. I especially like that you paired it with a large pasta shape rather than the more typical small tubetti or shells. So hearty and warming. The simple bean salad is terrific too – I made it from Glorious Vegetables on a recent meatless Monday with some good olive oil I brought back from Abruzzo. .So simple and perfect.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      Thanks Michelle. It makes me happy to know you are cooking from the book. And yes, I like the bigger pasta shapes with these heartier soups. I used Whole Foods organic cavatelli, which I thought were really good. And naturally everything is made better when drizzled with olive oil from Abruzzo.

  5. jamielifesafeast October 12, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    We love borlotti beans and my husband buys and cooks them when he finds them. We also love this kind of soup but while we ate it all the time when we lived in Italy, we don’t make it that often in France, which is an error. Thanks for reminding me and for the wonderful recipe. Great informative post as well, dear Domenica. Am sharing this on my Life’s a Feast page on FB today.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks so much Jamie. Your comment has me wondering what sorts of soups the people in and around Nantes make in fall. Do you make any of them?

  6. elisa October 12, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    I love fall/winter soups and this one is a winner. My local supermarket carries bags of parmigiano Reggiano rinds, I scrape the outer wax and freeze them in a bag with crushed peppercorns and different dried herbs. I am cooking from your book I let my husband choose from the photos, so I know he feels his contribution to what is going on the table……

    • Domenica Marchetti October 12, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

      Elisa, do you freeze the parmigiano rinds together with the peppercorns and dried herbs? I’m curious about this. What are you cooking from the book? I always like to know what appeals to cooks who cook from my books. And I hope your husband will eventually give a chance to some of the recipes without photos otherwise he’ll miss some good dishes. 😉

  7. laura (Tutti Dolci) October 12, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    Pasta e fagioli is such a comforting dish! I’d love a bowl of your soup on a chilly fall evening – nothing could be better!

  8. ciaochowlinda October 14, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    Domenica- i never knewthese beans were called October beans, but always looked for borlotti when I made the classic beans and pasta dish from my mom’s region, called ‘pisarei e faso.’ until now, they haven’t been easy to find.
    Once again, you’ve written a really informative post with a great recipe (i love using conchiglie pasta) that I’ll be enjoying in my own kitchen soon.

  9. elisa October 15, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Yes, I freeze them together with peppercorns and dried herbs. It takes away some of the musty taste left in the waxy part. And about my husband choosing just the photo recipes, it’s ok, because I choose all the rest.
    I already cooked Veg.Fritto Misto,Pasta al Forno with Roasted Veg., Baked Smoked Scamorza with Sauteed Peppers (wow!), Beet and beet Green Gratin with Fontina and Gorgonzola (my hubby swore to merry you for this) and the Panna Cotta with With Squash.

  10. elisa October 16, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    Yes, I freeze them together with peppercorns and dried herbs. It takes away some of the musty taste left in the waxy part. And about my husband choosing just the photo recipes, it’s ok, because I choose all the rest.
    I already cooked Veg.Fritto Misto,Pasta al Forno with Roasted Veg., Baked Smoked Scamorza with Sauteed Peppers (wow!), Beet and beet Green Gratin with Fontina and Gorgonzola (my hubby swore to merry you for this) and the Panna Cotta with With Squash.

    Sorry Domenica, previously I placed my comment on the wrong space.

    • Domenica Marchetti October 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

      Thanks for posting again, Elisa. Looks like it showed up. I’m going to have to try your peppercorn and dried herb trick, as I always have a bag of parmigiano rinds in the freezer. And wow ~ you are cooking your way through the book. I’m especially glad that you and your husband like the beet and beet green gratin, which is a little unconventional but, I think, Italian in spirit. I haven’t made it in while and now that the weather is turning cooler I will. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  11. Kim Pens October 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    If we can’t get the beans where we live, can you suggest a substitute?

    • Domenica Marchetti October 24, 2013 at 8:43 am #

      I’m glad you asked this question Kim. You can substitute dried borlotti or cranberry beans. You’ll need to soak them overnight and then cook them in water (with aromatics–onion, sage, garlic) until they are tender. Here’s a good resource for excellent heirloom dried beans:

      If you want to take a shortcut, you can always go with good-quality canned beans or chick peas, which also work well in this soup.

  12. Jamie October 6, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Mmmm we love beans and these are found quite easily on our French markets. I have to make your very Italian bean soup. And any beans leftover? Warm with just salt, pepper and olive oil.


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