Borlotti beans! Gentile's, my favorite grocer here in suburban Philadelphia, had them for sale. "Wow," I said to myself, "barbounophasoula!" I made a beeline to the display, got a bag and filled it to the top. Since childhood, I've loved eating these beans. Cooked with olive oil and tomatoes, seasoned with parsley and bay leaf, they are so good, even children with finicky tastes will not refuse them. Or so I believe. The bean shells have a bright red color, and I think it's the colorfulness of the crop that makes them attractive to children. That's how I learned to love them. I liked sitting in front of a table where the red borlotti beans had been scattered and helping to shell them.
Once the shells were opened, pearls of beans spilled out, soft and fresh, their creamy flesh speckled with deep-pink markings. They were just beautiful!
Of course, when cooked, the beans turned brown, but it seemed to me that the beautiful colors transformed themselves into tasty food notes that I just loved to gobble up. So I have always been excited about borlotti beans. The Greeks call them barbounophasoula, which is quite a long word, I know. The word describes the appearance of the beans. "Barbouno" is taken from the word for red mullet, a fish that is very plentiful in Mediterranean waters and has the same red on white markings as the beans. "Phasoula" is the word for beans. Indeed, the common bean belongs to the genus Phaseolus vulgaris, and that is the genus that borlotti beans belong to. They are widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region. Italians love to cook them in "Pasta e Fagioli" and also include them in minestrone. We Greeks stew them with tomatoes in a sauce that turns luscious from the flavor of the bean liquor. I believe the best way to enjoy them is while they are fresh, so stock up when you can find them, shell them and freeze them for later use. Of course, they can be had dried, and then you'll just have to soak them overnight before cooking. Borlotti beans are sometimes referred to as Roman beans, and they are related to cranberry beans, but don't confuse them with pinto beans, which have a somewhat similar appearance but quite a different taste. Here is my recipe for borlotti beans cooked Greek style:
About 2 pounds fresh, shelled borlotti beans
1 large onion such as Spanish, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 celery ribs, diced
1 bay leaf
dash of oregano
salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups vegetable broth
In a large pot heat the olive oil and sauté the onions and garlic. Add the beans, mix, then add the celery and parsley and stir for a few minutes.
Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste, the oregano, the bay leaf, the black pepper, the vegetable broth, and mix well.
Add enough water so that liquid covers the beans and comes about 1/2 inch over them. How's that for scientific measurement?
Bring to a boil, lower the heat to simmer and cover. Let cook for about 1 hour. Check occasionally, to make sure that not all of the liquid has evaporated.
About 45 minutes into cooking, season with salt and drizzle some olive oil (3 or 4 tablespoons), over the beans.
By the end of one hour, the beans should be soft and most of the liquid should have cooked off. The beans should not be soupy. They should be mixed into a nice, slightly thickened sauce.
Remove the bay leaf, place them into a serving bowl, and bring them to the table. They are ready to eat. I hope you enjoy them!