I know that pickled beans might sound a bit strange and most probably not as addictively appetizing as they are in real life. I am convinced that this is the fault of some minor misconceptions. First of all, the process of marinating in vinegar is called “pickling” in English. This word naturally evokes sour thoughts of all sorts, without doing justice to the wonderful flavor transformation that takes place when vegetables (and beans of course) are bathed in something refreshingly tart like vinegar. Secondly, beans have a bad reputation mostly because when prepared without passion they can be decidedly uninteresting. Combine both of these words in the English language, and one runs the risk of promoting an unappealing pair on the plate.
That being said, pickled beans are absolutely wonderful, I promise. Appreciating their many-faceted qualities simply requires embracing an Italian attitude towards cooking. Allow me to explain.
The Italian kitchen distinguishes itself by its focus upon authenticity and freshness of ingredients. Italians prepare food intuitively, focusing upon the intensity of simple flavors. The most iconic of Italian dishes are in fact a combination of three primary ingredients. Famous foods like “Spaghetti aglio e olio” (pasta with garlic and olive oil), “Insalata Caprese” (tomato salad with mozzarella and basil) and the “Pizza Margherita” illustrate this so well.
Now back to the beans — or to fagioli — as I prefer to think of them.
Every region of Italy has its own “fagioli” favorite.
In the Veneto, it is the borlotti that enjoys a great reputation (also known as the cranberry bean); Tuscany glorifies the “cannellini” (otherwise referred to as white navy beans); Umbria cultivates beautiful “lenticchie” (like the brown Castellucio lentils of Norcia); the southern region of Apulia serves up “ceci” (the short word in Italian for the infamous Mediterranean chickpea); lastly, from Rome past Naples to Palermo big white butter beans known as “fagioli di Spagna” (or Spanish beans) are a constant factor in dishes of all sorts, including the one I will eventually describe below.
The harvest of fagioli are celebrated throughout the country in late summer where the just podded beans of the season are cooked at local festivities called “sagre” that involve not only entire families, but complete villages. This is exactly why I love Italy by the way; here the simple things in life are applauded with recognition. Imagine how amazing it is to see a whole town celebrate the transformation of a field full of speckled red cranberry beans into a pot of delicious “pasta e fagioli“. Simple events of this sort connect humanity to nature and weave the joy of life through the cycle of the seasons.
Believe it or not, this brings me back to my starting point, namely to the proud attitude towards nature’s ingredients that Italian cooks translate into their food. Each region possesses a rustic history rich in cooking techniques that in other parts of the world may have been forgotten. One of these techniques involves preparing vegetables (and beans) in vinegar baths. This old school preservation method not only imparts flavor, it preserves food longer than only water and heat can.
The process of stewing or blanching transforms the raw into the cooked. The addition of vinegar imparts flavor and extends the shelf life to the simplest of ingredients — whether it be an onion or a butter bean. What’s more, a slosh of vinegar added to a pot of freshly cooked beans adds the element of freshness to the already earthy flavor and almost meaty texture of the various kinds “fagioli” I described above.
Finally, below you will find my recipe for an absolutely Italian favorite — the combination of beans with fish accented by the crunch of marinated onions as a perfect answer to the hot days of summer. The cooking process involves a few more than three ingredients I must admit, but the result is absolutely worth it. I recommend doubling the recipe because the flavor of the fagioli truly do get better over time (I keep mine up to a week in the fridge – making sure to add the fish just before serving).
- 200 grams of dried butter beans .
- three bay leaves
- one celery stalk
- one small carrot
- one small potato
- a good pinch of sea salt
- 150 ml white wine vinegar
- 50 ml organic honey
- 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 0ne fresh shallot or red onion . about 100 grams in weight
- 25 grams fresh flat leaf parsley
- 200 grams of smoked mackerel
- or the more traditional tuna preserved in olive oil
- a pinch of dried red pepper flakes
Pour the dried butter beans into a large bowl with a generous amount of cool water (about four times their dried volume). Add the bay leaves and soak fagioli at least eight hours (although I tend to prefer twelve). Drain and rinse the beans before putting them into a large pot and cover them with two liters of water. Add the celery stalk, carrot, potato and bay leaves and bring the beans to a slow simmer at low heat for two hours, or until the beans are tender. Add a good pinch of sea salt and 50 ml of white wine vinegar and simmer the beans thirty minutes more if needed. Otherwise, turn off the heat and put a lid on the pot. Let the beans come to room temperature before draining them of their cooking liquid. (You can actually save the thick bean liquid in the refrigerator for a few days. It works well as a basis for a vegetable soup or a simple pasta — that is — if you are in the mood and the summer heat allows for it).
Meanwhile make a marinade for the shallot (or onion) by stirring the remaining vinegar into the honey with a whisk in a small bowl. Peel the shallot and cut it in half. Lay the cut side down on a cutting board and slice it into thin wedges with a sharp knife. Place the shallot in the vinegar marinade and add a generous pinch of sea salt. Allow the sliced shallots to soak up the vinegar flavors at least one hour, stirring occasionally.
Clean the smoked mackerel, removing the skin, the grayish fat directly underneath it and remove all the bones. (A can of mackerel filets or tuna preserved in olive oil is a perfect substitute for the freshly smoked mackerel I mention here). Flake the fish and set it aside. Wash and dry the flat leaf parsley. Chop the stems and their leaves with a sharp knife. Add the chopped parsley, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Put the fish in the fridge to chill. Pour the onions and the vinegar marinade over the beans and let them soak up the flavors for at least an hour in the refrigerator. (I like to marinate my beans overnight if time and my schedule permit it).
To assemble the dish, dress the beans with extra virgin olive oil. Taste the end result and add sea salt and freshly ground pepper if needed. Put the beans, followed by the mackerel onto individual plates or stir the fish through the bowl of fagioli and enjoy pickled beans Italian style.
This is a one-bowl kind of dish. The only thing I would suggest adding are some fresh lettuce leaves, a ripe tomato and some freshly baked sourdough bread to soak up the salad juices. Oh. And I realize that I often add a pinch of dried oregano to the bean salad just before serving.
If you happen to have your own butter beans in the garden, there will be no need to soak them before putting them in a pot of water. Cooking time will be reduced at least by half when using fresh beans. Feel free to substitute butter beans for borlotti, cannellini or ceci !
If time is of the essence — then canned beans do work. Even if they are decidedly softer in texture — and I must say are not close to the flavor of fresh beans — the salad will still be worth the making. After all that is what a pantry of canned goods are for, when the day runs after you instead of vice versa.