Saturday, September 29, 2007

Shell Beans

I confess, the first time I bought shell beans it was purely for their looks. Fuschia-red. Dappled. Wavy. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t know what they were, but I bought a few; I wanted to see what was inside.
Inside proved to be even prettier: smooth, pearl-white beans with streaks of scarlet—a sassy riff on the shell. They were shaped like limas but otherwise looked similar to Great Northern white beans, the kind I’d used—dried—to make baked beans for years and years. So, I thought. This is what a fresh bean looks like. How beautiful.
Sometimes you will hear the term “shell bean” applied to any bean in a pod, like limas, black turtles, favas, and others. But technically the shell bean is the cranberry bean, also known as the borlotti bean or Roma bean. Cranberry beans are a traditional bean for pasta e fagioli. By the time I discovered them, I had already had long experience with pasta e fagioli. I had eaten it for the first time in the 1960s at a local college hangout, Giro’s in Peace Dale, RI. Giro’s did two things remarkably well (maybe more, but I always ordered my favorites): a hamburger sub consisting of three burger half-moons in a toasted roll, slathered with mayo and topped with lettuce, and their pasta e fagioli (pronounced “pasta fahd-jole” here in Rhode Island, with a movie mobster accent, one we know first-hand). It was not soupy, exactly, yet not quite saucy—a cross between a soup, a stew, and a sauced pasta dish. I later had it at the home of a friend from Cranston, at a Christmas Eve feast of endless courses; this homemade version, served very fresh, was even better. Naturally I began making it myself when I moved on from college, using dried beans and gradually settling on a thinner soup with a richer stock. It was delicious. But when I discovered the fresh shell beans, with their nutty flavor and meaty texture, it moved into the realm of simple perfection. But then the Italians are masters at that, aren’t they?
When buying, look for beans that are bright and colorful, with a leathery but soft shell and white or near-white seam; pass on any that feel tough or that look green along the edge. Use them as soon as possible, and immediately after shelling, as they begin to dry out quickly. To shell, simply twist the pod and pop out the beans; they should come out completely clean, but if necessary wipe away any membrane with your fingers. Admire their pied beauty as you shell them: they will turn uniformly beigey-white on cooking.
Unless you grow your own beans, if you want dry beans for storage it is best to buy them from a good producer; there are excellent sources, such as Purcell Mountain Farms, for a vast range of rare and common varieties, including the cranberry bean. Dry beans are dried in the pod while still on the plant, and harvested at just the right time. (Your shelled beans will certainly dry hard as a rock in a few days, but will also wrinkle, shrivel, and discolor.) Dry shell beans are a satisfying staple to have on hand for the winter. They go particularly well with lamb or sausage of any kind. You can also stew or braise them on their own in olive oil and liquid with a little garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and a little sage or thyme. Or you can make the incomparable pasta e fagioli.

Pasta e Fagioli
This is an utterly simple and utterly delicious soup. I strongly recommend the use of a homemade stock, especially turkey stock, as the resulting depth of flavor makes this dish rather transcendent. Serves 4.
6 oz lean salt pork or prosciutto end (see Note), chopped to ¼” dice
1 T olive oil
½ cup onion, chopped fine
¼ cup carrot, chopped fine
1 large clove garlic, chopped fine
2 cups shelled cranberry beans (about 1 ½-2 lbs unshelled)
4 cups stock or water, preferably rich turkey, beef, or chicken stock
1 cup imported Italian plum tomatoes
a sprig of fresh oregano or ¼ tea dried oregano
1 cup ditalini
salt if needed
freshly grated parmeggiano reggiano
freshly ground black pepper
chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Put the salt pork or prosciutto and the olive oil into a large open pan over medium-high heat. When it begins to render, add the onion, carrot, and garlic; sauté until the onion is translucent, reducing the heat if needed to avoid burning. Add the tomatoes and cook a few minutes, chopping with the edge of a wooden spoon. Add the shelled beans and the stock or water. Cover, leaving a tiny crack, and cook over moderately low heat, enough to maintain a slow boil, for 45-60 minutes; the beans should be soft, but just soft. Taste for salt; you will probably not need to add any unless you used water. If you like your soup thicker, you can remove a cup or so of the beans and vegetables and pass through a food mill back into the pan. I like it as is, and know that it will thicken up a bit the next day on its own.
In a separate pan, boil the pasta in lightly salted water until it too is just done, about 9 minutes; drain. To serve, place about ½ cup of the cooked pasta in a shallow soup bowl, and ladle in the beans and broth to the rim. Garnish with a generous amount of freshly grated parmesan and black pepper, and a little chopped flat-leaf parsley if you like.
Note: If you live near a busy Italian specialty food store, as I did for several years in Philadelphia, you can probably beg an occasional prosciutto end; another option is to try an authentic tapas bar for an end of jamon serrano. Here in New England, living not too close to Providence, I typically use salt pork, and I really like it for this; you could also use pancetta. These are all cured, not smoked; do not use smoked bacon. Leftover salt pork and pancetta freeze well.

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