Italian Butter Beans

I discovered Lou Iacopi at the San Mateo Farmers Market in August of 2000. I had spotted his cranberry beans in the shell and was about to start scooping some up when he touted his “Italian Butter Beans.” Well, the shelled bean didn’t look anything like the butter beans I was familiar with, which were shaped like lima beans but larger than the typical lima and much better tasting. The Italian Butter Beans look pretty much like an extra large Romano bean, but as I discovered after I’d cooked the trial bag, taste even better.

The following recipe is an original creation, which is not to say that someone else has not already done this, but rather that I was messing around in the kitchen one day and made it up.

Italian Butter BeansINGREDIENTS:

1 lb. dried Italian butter beans.

You could, I suppose, substitute another bean, and if I were going to substitute, I’d go for Romanos or cranberry beans. You do need to use dry beans here for two reasons. First, when you can get fresh beans, you do not want to have very many other things in the pot with them since the whole point of going to the work of getting and shelling them is to enjoy their fresh flavor. Second, if you used fresh beans, there would not be enough cooking time for the tomato reduction.

Either soak the beans overnight or use Julia’s technique: To the beans add 10 c. water and bring to a boil. Boil uncovered for two minutes, cover, and let sit for an hour. Drain the soaking water, as this makes the beans more digestible. As Julia says, if you’re concerned about the minimal nutrient loss, “simply eat a minimally larger serving.” Add enough fresh water to cover the beans well. You do not want a lot of extra water at this point.

1 ½ lbs. fresh tomatoes, skinned.

Ideally, you’ll have access to heirlooms like the Brandywine and the Purple Cherokee that are “meaty” and don’t reduce to almost nothing when cooked down. Romas are an acceptable second choice and are more widely available. Early Girls, even though delicious if dry farmed, are just too watery. You could throw in enough tomatoes to turn this dish into Red Spaghetti Sauce with Beans, but I find that 1 ½ pounds yields a dish sufficiently tomatoey and would not go higher than this amount.

1 lb. onion.

This recipe calls for a full-flavored onion. Vidalias and Walla-Wallas would be wasted here. Go ahead and chop the onion, but you do not have to get all compulsive about it as the onion is going to disappear during the cooking.

1 head garlic.

No need to be gentle when you’re peeling the cloves, as the garlic, like the onion, disappears.

Fresh sage.

I originally made this dish with fresh oregano, but the next Saturday, I told Mr. Iacopi about it, and when I got to the oregano, he interrupted and told me to use sage, fresh only. Well, I’d never heard of using sage in beans, but I defer to his judgment. After all, when his ancestors were doing stuff like writing the Aeneid, building gigantic aqueducts, and perishing of surfeits of nightingales’ tongues, mine were dancing around campfires with their faces painted blue. (OK, the punch line is from Steinbeck, and I’ve been waiting for years to use it.)

Pepper.

There are many wonderful peppers out there. Use just the right amount of your favorite.

Salt.

I subscribe to the urban legend that beans should not be salted until they are nearly done. Frankly, I think it’s probably hogwash, but I’m a creature of habit. Late note: It’s not hogwash after all. See Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, a marvelous book that every serious cook should have.

1 bunch spinach or kale (optional).

This is a better addition than it might seem. Go ahead and try it. By “bunch” I mean a standard size farmers’ market bunch, which is routinely larger than a supermarket bunch. Wash your bunch of spinach well, stem it, and chop it up thoroughly. We’re aiming at green flecks here rather than green strings.

Superb variant:  Instead of the garlic and spinach, during fresh green garlic season you can chop in entire stalks of garlic.  Go ahead.  More.

Oh, and I’m almost too embarrassed to add this, but if you’re really pushed for time, you can substitute for the bunch an 8 oz. bag of frozen chopped spinach.  There are ways you can tiptoe around confessing that you used frozen spinach and still leave your guests with the idea that you used fresh.  The first step is to push the empty bag down to the bottom of the trash bin, or if you’re in San Francisco, rinse the bag out with the minimum amount of water and put it into your recycling bag for plastic bags.

TECHNIQUE:

To the beans just covered with water add all the above ingredients except the salt. Bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer for thirty minutes. Uncover and continue to simmer until the beans are finally tender and the liquid has reduced to a fairly thick sauce. This will take another two to two and a half hours because these are big, tough beans. You will probably need to add small amounts of water toward the end, but remember that what you’re going for is not a bean soup but rather beans in a thick, easy-to-scorch sauce composed of cooked down tomato, onion, garlic, and spinach.

If you were serving this to Italian friends, you could grate a bunch of Parmesan over it.  You might even try this with the Irish.

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