I’m crazy about legumes. For years we have been growing our own and for years I’ve been saying its time to stop. They are relatively cheap to buy after all, and extremely labour intensive to grow. Especially because at Petraia we dry them on the plant and harvest each pod only when it is perfect. This usually takes several weeks of daily, painstaking harvesting. Then comes the shelling. Especially with chick-peas this a lot of work as they usually have just one pea per pod. Of course this all happens in our high season when everyone already has more than enough to keep them busy. We pile the dry legumes all over, wherever we find a bit of space for shelling in spare moments. It can take months to find enough of those moments, but that’s ok.
Every year, in spite of myself, I end up planting more legumes. I love trying new varieties, especially here in Tuscany which defiantly has to be the legume capital of the world (the Tuscans are often referred to as mangiafagioli, or bean eaters). I am convinced our home grown beans taste better and besides, by growing my own I get to use them when they are young and green. I get to use the pretty flowers, the tendrils and even the leaves. We make a wicked fava-leaf risotto. The pods are great to add to vegetable stocks. Green chick peas are delicious and their almost neon color is a surprise for our guests. Most people have never seen a fresh chick pea or know what the plant looks like. Our zolfini beans are a rare Tuscan variety. If you are lucky enough to find them for sale they can set you back as much per kilo as the famous Tuscan bistecca. There are other even rarer Tuscan beans, like the sorano, schiacciona, aquila, malato, pievarino, capon, burro, diecimino and garfagnina. Then there are all the other usual suspects, the coco nano, chick pea, pea bean, fave, borlotto, and cannellini bean, just to name a few.
At this time of year I almost always have a jar of cooked beans (stored in some of their cooking liquid) in my fridge where they keep well for 2 or 3 days. Because they are so good, I tend to serve them simply, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some salt. That’s it. Delicious. Leftovers the next day can be pureed with some of the liquid for a quick soup. Or I stir them into bowls of steaming polenta, pasta or risotto. Sometimes I add a few to a salad. Or pile them up on thick slices of grilled Tuscan bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with freshly cracked black pepper. When there is no time to cook, some beans or chick peas, a thinly sliced red onion, a jar of excellent tuna belly (ventresca) or tuna loin preserved in olive oil and a crusty loaf of bread make a satisfying meal. But usually I’m a purist when it comes to our beans.
I cook most legumes in the pressure cooker, its fast and the results are even. To pressure cook beans follow the instructions that came with your pressure cooker or consult the Hip pressure cooking chart. But remember, it is difficult to give precise cooking times for pressure cooking. Like with any other form of cooking, it depends on so many factors. How old are your beans? What kind are they? How dry are they? What is their moisture content? But here’s a tip that works for almost anything you will ever need to bake or cook. Trust your nose. When you start to smell those beans, they’re probably ready.
Right now our garden is almost empty. It’s resting until spring, except for the one quadrant of fave beans we planted in December. Those have sprouted. They will be our first bean crop and we should start harvesting them sometime after Easter. But fortunately, I have a pantry full of delicious heirloom beans we grew last season to sustain us until then and I’m happy we went to all the trouble. It’s time to eat beans!
On Soaking: All legumes should be soaked first. I’m not a big fan of the quick soak method. I find beans are more digestible if they have been soaked overnight in the fridge. This rule applies even if you are going to use a pressure cooker. Click here to watch a time lapse video of the above jar of legumes as they soaked at room temperature for just over an hour. See how active they are in such a short time? Add water to anything and you are creating an attractive environment for bacterial growth and fermentation. This is why I prefer to refrigerate my soaking beans. It slows down the process and can help prevent the growth of any potentially harmful bacteria.
- 1 cup dried white beans
- 4 fresh sage leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Soak the beans in water overnight in the refrigerator using enough water to cover them by several inches.
- The next day, drain them and place them in a pot with enough water to cover by an inch.
- Add the sage, garlic and olive oil, cover the pot and place it over a very low heat.
- Cooking time will vary, so check them frequently for doneness and that they are still covered, adding more water if necessary.
- When tender serve the beans with salt, pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- For a great starter serve the beans warm on top of a thick slice of grilled Tuscan bread drizzled with EVOO and finished with loads of freshly cracked black pepper