I apologize for continually talking about food, but it’s just too fundamental and gorgeous to ignore. Today I was struck, as I always am when they are available, by the sheer graphic perfection of the fresh borlotti beans. Lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” spring to mind: “Glory be to God for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,” and “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)” These lovely edibles are perennial winners at the Pied Beauty Pageant, and they are as delicious to eat as they are lovely to behold.
And the strange thing is: As a child, I detested beans of all description. I can remember the smell of lunchroom beans at school—something akin to an overcooked sock—and the heavy viscosity of the bacon-infused liquid that engulfed them. In a non-eloquent word: yick. The ability to appreciate beans came with adulthood. My mother, who loved beans, made exquisite mixed-bean minestrone, and this “presentation” began to win me over. But it wasn’t until I came to Italy, and saw fresh, unshelled beans, that I began to really understand and relate to the bean myself.
Now when I eat beans, there is rarely a layer of packaging between me and the dappled delectable. I buy a mezzo chilo (half kilo), which shells down to four portions, leaving behind a pile of gorgeous, streaked magenta pods. Shelling the borlotti is peculiarly satisfying: testing the seam with your thumb, urging it to open which it does willingly, watching the freckled beans spill out. Firm, but not as hard as dried beans. Cool to the touch. Each one clean and imperfectly perfect. Every now and then, there’s an odd man out, as light green as the innards of a Granny Smith apple.
And then, of course, the secret to cooking them, as with most things, is not to over-do it. When you’re not tossing them into soups, you can simply throw them (like Tuscan white beans, or toscanelli) into judiciously salted (yes, that blessed salt) boiling water. Cook ’til tender. Drain. Then toss, tepid, with the best olive oil you can get your hands on, raw thin-sliced red onion, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel. During the boiling, their color changes entirely, shifting from the vivid hot pink streaks of youth to a rather mature, subdued pinky-gray. But the taste is ageless. Teeth and tongue are met with a clean, resistant flesh, spiced by the piquancy of the olive oil and the harmless challenge of the onion. Earthy, satisfying, divine.
NOTE: Fresh borlotti appear in the late spring and reach their full maturation during the summer months. But they are, for some reason, available still. Nevertheless, it is for this reason, I have included them in the “Savoring Italy” category instead of “Now in Season.”
My thanks to Ann Moore for copy-editing this post.