Monday, September 24, 2012

Fresh Borlotti Beans: an autumn gift


One of the things I love about cooking with seasonal ingredients is the anticipation for the next new thing. So, back in June, when I couldn't cope with even looking at another sprig of asparagus or shell another fava bean,  tomatoes and zucchini appeared at the green grocer. Hallelujah! Well, it is now September, and I am officially done with zucchini. I've cooked them in a million different variations this summer; I'm ready for the next thing. 

Autumn has a lot to offer, but one of my most favourite arrivals is the borlotti bean. Right, I know what you're thinking. What the heck is a borlotti bean? In Canada they are called 'romano' beans, but all the recipes I have for this ingredient comes from U.K-based chefs. I like their name better. I know it's a bit presumptuous, and possibly silly, to refer to zucchini as 'courgettes' or eggplant as 'aubergine' or arugula as 'rocket'. For some reason, in North America, we've stuck with the Italian terminology while the English have used more French terms (probably a hangover from the Norman conquest of 1066 AD) In any event, there is one exception I will make in my culinary nomenclature, that is, this wonderful bean called a borlotti. (to further confuse matters, some people call this a 'cranberry' bean).

Despite the differences in names, this bean is one of the most beautiful foods that can be grown. The pod is crimson, green and gold tiger stripes. Hidden inside, like the speckled eggs of a tiny bird, are the beans themselves. They are the colour of Devonshire cream with dabs and flecks of claret-wine red. Every year, around late September, these beans start popping up in the green grocer shops of little Italy. My office is located between Kensington Market, Chinatown and Little Italy - just about the best location, gastronomically speaking, in the city of Toronto.

The recipe I used for these beans comes from Gill Meller, the head chef at River Cottage's Park Farm in England's west country. His original vision was of a sort of salad, whereas I applied mine as an accompaniment to a simple roast chicken.

This is a wonderfully rustic dish that goes quite well with many other roast dinners. The one unavoidable draw back is that the heat from cooking will tragically kill the beautiful cream and crimson of your beans, leaving them an uninspiring murky brown. Because of this, fresh herbs are essential to add colour to a relatively monochromatic, albeit tasty, dish.


Borlotti Beans with Braised Onions

1 cup of fresh, borlotti beans, removed from their pods
4 or 5 small to medium sized onions
2 shallots
3 cloves of garlic (leave the skin on)
5 bay leaves
1 or 2 sprigs of thyme
1 tbs of oil
1 tbs of red wine vinegar
1 tbs of balsamic vinegar
1 really good pinch of fresh chopped parsley

Get your beans in a sauce pan, cover with fresh water and drop in two fresh bay leaves. Bring the water to a boil, and drop the heat back a wee bit to an enthusiastic simmer. Cover and allow to gently cook for about 35 minutes. In the mean time, peel your onions and shallots but do not remove the root (it will hold them together). Quarter the onions and shallots and get into a small roasting tin with the garlic, oil, the red wine vinegar, the bay and the thyme. Toss everything together with some salt and pepper and cover with foil. Roast in the oven at 400F for about 25 minutes, then remove the foil and roast for a further 15 to 20 minutes. The onions will soften and start to caramelize. When you're happy with the doneness of your onions and the beans are soft and yielding, go ahead and assemble the dish. Strain the beans. Get rid of the bay leaves and the thyme sprigs and combine the beans with the onions. Toss them together and drizzle in the balsamic vinegar and add the parsley. Adjust the seasoning for taste and then finish with a bit of your best olive oil.  Serve hot.

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