While I’m uncertain about quite a few things in life, I very much doubt if there’s a tastier way of cooking and eating Fagioli Borlotti then the one given by Patience Gray in her lovely, classic cookbook, Honey from a Weed. And I’m not alone in this assessment as I recall Ed Behr—in an issue of his quarterly, The Art of Eating—praising this classic way of preparing fresh fagioli borlotti as well. I’d describe it as a dish of stewed borlotti beans—a kilogram of them when still unhusked—slowly cooked in a savory liquid provided by a large sweet onion, some plum tomatoes, fresh parsley, handfuls of the tops of celery—the real kind growing in your own garden, or better yet, dandelion leaves or better yet, cicoria catalogna—thyme, lots of fresh greek oregano, garlic and potatoes.
Making this Fagioli Borlotti alla Toscana is actually a much anticipated rite of summer gardening for me. A really big one that I’ve been celebrating for so long now that I’ve forgotten in which of my 43 gardens it first began. [Her book came out in 1987, so it was likely shortly after that.] I start this rite nell’orto mio gathering up all those ingredients and bringing them in and washing them and setting them out on my working table and then spending a moment simply gazing at them, temporarily resting my life. Then I amble down to my wine cellar and get a nice bottle of sangiovese-based vino and pour myself a glass and bring it out to the back stoop where I sit and shell the Fagioli Borlotti in the warm sun and cool air. There are few things in gardening—or life itself—that I enjoy as much as shelling those beautiful cranberry beans on my back stoop while sipping some good vino.
Next I take down my large Umbrian bean pot, a dark brown terracotta pot that i Toscani use to cook bean soups and the like. I put only a moderately low flame under it, of course, and first make a puddle of olive oil on its bottom and slice a large white sweet onion and let it simmer as I take 1⁄2 kilo of fresh tomatoes and dunk them in boiling water to remove the skins. I cut up a nice big handful of my cicoria catalogna, una manciata di prezzemolo (handful of parsley stems and leaves), a sprig of thyme and lots of fresh greek oregano. Once the onion has simmered a while, you add the tomatoes—and crush them in the pot with a wooden spatula—then add two potatoes cut in large chunks, the roughly chopped parsley and cicoria catalogna , thyme and oregano and salt and pepper and boiling water to cover. Let that simmer for 11⁄2 hours. When done, spoon out some of the beans along with some of the potatoes and other things, but not too much of the liquid—this isn’t una zuppa. Slice a clove of garlic or two thinly and sprinkle over your dish of fagioli and add some fresh chopped parsley, more black pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a little stream of really good red wine vinegar.
As with pretty much all the recipes in Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, when you sit down to this dish, you know you’re sitting down to not just an authentic dish—usually but not always an Italian one—but likely one of the more toothsome ones you’ll ever savor.
And it gets even better: next day, you use the bean liquor and remaining beans and other things and make: La Zuppa di Fagioli. Add a lot more chopped cicoria catalogna, a carrot, some morepotatoes and maybe a bit more tomato and water and toward the end of the cooking add some cooked pasta or rice to make a dense soup that’s simply wonderful. When I push away from that table, I smile the smile of a gardener & cook who has done his best ... both by his garden and table.
Gestur Davidson June 3, 2015