I discovered the Iacopis at the San Mateo Farmers Market in August of 2000. I had spotted their unshelled cranberry beans and was about to start scooping some up when Mr. Iacopi touted his unshelled “Italian Butter Beans.” Well, they 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. So I asked him the Italian name for these beans. He muttered something to his wife that I didn’t catch, but which provoked a brief utterance from her that I suspect would translate as “No way!” She, in turn, suggested to him something else I didn’t catch but which got from him a similar response. So I gave up and call ’em “Italian Butter Beans” like he does. They look pretty much like an extra large Romano bean, but as I discovered after I’d cooked the trial bag, taste even better. The Iacopis have reached the age at which they are no longer laboring every day in the fields, and I now see them regularly at both the Ferry Plaza and Justin Herman Plaza farmers markets. They’re delightful people, and besides their many varieties of beans, they sell all kinds of good stuff, including award-winning sugar snaps, the best Brussels sprouts in the world, and just amazing baby cauliflower – my first batch of which I steamed into near oblivion since I didn’t consider that something that small and tender would cook in a small fraction of the normal time.
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.
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 all that work getting them 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.
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. The 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.
I originally made this dish with fresh oregano, but the next Saturday, I told Mrs. Iacopi about it, and when I got to the oregano, she interrupted and told me to use sage, fresh only. Well, I’d never heard of using sage in beans, but I defer to Mrs. Iacopi’s judgment. After all, when her 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.)
There are many wonderful peppers out there. Use just the right amount of your favorite.
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. I mean a standard size farmers’ market bunch, which is routinely rather 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.
Variant: Instead of the garlic and spinach, during fresh green garlic season you can chop in some entire stalks of garlic.
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.