Borlotti Beans with Tomatoes and Pancetta

As Mark and I settle into life in Italy this Autumn, the rhythm of food and changing seasons is unmistakeable. Ingredients from the waning summer, like sweet cherry tomatoes, near their end just as beautiful Borlotti beans and young chards are getting started. To me, this mirrors the announcement of springtime by fava beans.

These inflection points in the year present amazing opportunities to create simple dishes that bridge the seasons. They also reinforce the Italian tradition of cooking with local seasonal products to create meals using very few ingredients.

Five ingredients plus green chard

I’ve been particularly struck by the shell beans that are now in season. Borlotti beans (also called Cranberry beans) are one of nature’s most beautiful beginning-of-autumn crops. They sneak into the ground after the really big summer crops are done, grow fast and get harvested in time for winter crops to go into the ground. Also, since they are a legume, they “nitrogen fix” the soil by pulling nitrogen from the air and depositing it into the soil. This gets the ground ready for the next wave of plantings.

Fresh Borlotti Beans

The real payoff is when you can find fresh beans and shell them yourself. You’ll be amazed at the colors that nature has produced. And it’s not only the pod but the bean inside. So look for them in your local farmers market or farm stand. As a substitute, you can use another type of shell bean or use dried Borlotti beans.

Here’s a simple recipe that combines the amazing ingredients I’ve found here in Italy at the end of the summer. The fall crops are just starting to be available at my favorite “fruttavendolo” – Donatella e Luca in Senigallia Italy.

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Borlotti Beans with Tomatoes and Pancetta


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 bunch green Swiss chard
  • Approx. 2 lbs fresh unshelled Borlotti beans (or 8 ounces dried beans, soaked overnight and drained)
  • 23 garlic cloves
  • 23 rosemary sprigs
  • 23 1/4-inch thick slices of good quality Italian pancetta
  • 1 small basket of sweet & ripe cherry tomatoes, stems removed
  • Olive oil, salt & pepper

Instructions

  1. Set a medium pot filled with water over high heat and bring to boil. Meanwhile, trim the Swiss chard and then cut the stems into 1-inch segments. When the water is boiling, add a tbsp of salt and dissolve. Add the stems and cook for about 5 minutes. Cut the leaves of the chard into 1-inch ribbons and add to the water. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes until the chard is wilted. Drain into a colander.
  2. Peel the garlic and slightly smash it with the flat side of a knife. Shell the Borlotti beans, discarding the outer husks.
  3. In the same medium pot, add water twice the depth the shelled beans will take. Add the smashed garlic and the rosemary sprigs. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes to flavor the water.
  4. Add the shelled beans to the pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender, about 20-30 minutes. Set the pot aside and let cool to room temperature. Once cooled, pick out the rosemary and garlic and discard.
  5. Chop the 1/4-inch-thick pancetta into 1/2-inch squares.
  6. Select a shallow pan you can use for both cooking and serving. Set over medium-low heat. Add a tbsp of olive oil, heat and then add the cut pancetta. Slowly cook the pancetta for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want to slowly render the fat from the pancetta until it becomes a little crispy.
  7. Push the pancetta to one side of the pan and add the cherry tomatoes to the accumulated fat. Roll around and cook the tomatoes until they begin to burst. Smash a little with a wooden spoon.
  8. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked Borlotti beans from their liquid to the pan with the pancetta and tomatoes. Add the cooked Swiss chard. Finally add about 1 cup of the bean-cooking liquid.
  9. Over medium heat, cook the entire mixture until the liquid is mostly absorbed and everything is mixed well as shown in the photo.
  10. Season with pepper and serve either hot or at room temperature.

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