Monday, 20 May 2013


Borlotti beans! Gentile's, my favourite grocer here in suburban Philadelphia, had them for sale. "Wow," I said to myself, "barbounophasoula!" I made a beeline for 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 colour, and I think it's the colourfulness 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, pearl-like 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 colours 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 I've noticed is quite a long word ... 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 flavour 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, but the dried ones need to soak overnight before they're cooked.

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 red onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes (it would be marvellous to use fresh tomatoes)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 celery ribs, diced
1 small pepper: use a hot pepper if you like, or use a sweet Italian frying pepper.
1 bay leaf
dash of oregano
salt and black pepper to taste
olive oil
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 pepper and stir for a few minutes. 
  • Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste, the parsley, the oregano, the bay leaf, the black pepper, and the vegetable broth. Mix well. 
  • Add enough water so that the beans are covered by liquid. The amount of liquid should reach about 1/2 inch over the beans. How's that for scientific measurement?
  • Bring to a boil, lower the heat to simmer and cover. Let cook for 45 minutes to an hour.  Check occasionally to make sure that not all of the liquid has evaporated. About 30 minutes into cooking, season with salt and drizzle some olive oil (3 or 4 tablespoons), over the beans.  
  • When ready, the beans should be soft and most of the liquid should have cooked off. The stew is a stew and should not be soupy. You should have a  nice, slightly thickened sauce. 
  • Remove the bay leaf, place the borlotti beans into a serving bowl, and bring them to the table.  They are ready to eat. I hope you enjoy them! 
Any leftovers? They'll make a great lunch! Mix them with fresh tomato and parsley and enjoy them on a slice of bread.