Monday, September 27, 2010

Assunta's Beans: Mille Grazie!

I'm not sure how I developed a love affair with fresh shell beans. I'm not referring to the lima beans that were a staple in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland where I grew up. I'm talking about cannellini, flageolet, and bortolini beans. The kind with romantic-sounding names that show up as ingredients in French and Italian cookbooks -- except you can usually only find them in their dried form here in the States. It begs the question: why go to all the trouble to dry them, when they're so marvelous cooked up fresh? I suspect the real reason is that they're very fragile -- and that so few home cooks understand how to prepare them.

The latter is a theory I get to test out every year when, as summer fades into autumn, fresh cranberry beans appear in the farmers' markets in Boston and Seacoast NH. Because their season seems so brief, I start looking out for them just before Labor Day. When I find them, as I did this weekend at the White Gate farm stand at the Seacoast Growers' Market, another customer inevitably asks me what I'm going to do with them. (In fact, it was just such an encounter that inspired this blog!) That's when I tell them about Assunta's beans.

Marcella Hazan's Italian cookbooks are a great source of recipes and stories about that cuisine. In Marcella Cucina, she talks about the delicious beans that Assunta, her husband Victor's one-time Tuscan housekeeper, used to make him. Perhaps it was the story, but I craved the opportunity to taste them for myself. So you can imagine that the first time I actually located fresh cranberry beans, it was ecstasy. I was not disappointed. Cooked at a bare simmer, with sage and garlic, in minimal water and a big splash of olive oil, they become fragrant, creamy, and flavorful. I must warn you, they'll lose that beautiful cranberry color, but they taste so good, you'll probably find yourself whispering "grazie" to Assunta -- and Marcella -- too.

Assunta's Beans
from Marcella Cucina by Marcella Hazan

1 lb unshelled fresh cranberry beans (about 2 cups shelled)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup water
4 to 6 fresh sage leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
Fresh ground black pepper
A good extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the beans when serving


1. Shell and rinse the beans.
2. Put the beans and all other ingredients in a small lidded pot. The beans should be just covered with water. Moisten a clean kitchen towel, squeezing out the excess water, and fold it to fit the pot lid. (Use one you won’t mind staining.) Cover the top of the pot with the towel and set the lid
3. Set the pot over a very low flame and cook slowly at the barest simmer. After 45 minutes, check the liquid and add a few tablespoons of water as needed. Repeat twice more in 20 minute intervals. You may have to adjust the quantity of water to match the level of heat. (The beans should never be soaking in water, but should have just enough to keep from sticking.) The beans should be done in about an hour and forty five minutes. Taste them. They should be firm but tender and the skin should have remained whole without cracking.
4. Drizzle with fresh olive oil when serving.
These are best served the moment they are done, but they can be made through the end a day in advance. Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container and reheat gently with a tablespoon or so of water.


  1. This sounds great. Tastes even better. I served it with steamed beet greens mixed with (of course) olive oil, garlic and red pepper sauteed). Very colorful combination. Great flavors. Thanks for the recipe!

  2. Been making these since I first cracked a Marcella book 30 years ago. Just delicious. Great with good quality Italian tuna, or really any protein.