Finger on the pulses

Matt O'Leary
January 29, 2009

I'd be lying if I said that the topic of this fortnight's article wasn't inspired by the ready crop of puns that suit anything bean-related. Bean a long time? The importance of beans in earnest? Lentil we meet again? Pun-tastic. However, at this time of year, when cash is still a bit tight after the excesses of the holidays and the waistbands of trousers are even tighter, beans, lentils and other pulses (the edible seeds of various members of the legume family) are essential ingredients. It's fortunate, then, that here in Tuscany they are an integral and long-standing part of the local cuisine.


A word about food safety. The first thing that you need to remember about beans, particularly the dried, uncooked varieties, is to read and follow the instructions on the package or, if you buy in bulk, a cookbook. If the beans need to be soaked for a specified length of time, do so. If they need to be boiled for a certain length of time, follow the advice. Unsoaked beans cooked incorrectly can be bad for you. If in doubt, soak them overnight in plenty of cold water, drain and wash well, and then boil vigorously for 30 minutes before cooking in any other way. With some beans, such as red kidney beans, you may need to change the water once during cooking, too. At the very least, you'll end up with soft beans that are less likely to split as they stew and you won't be poisoned by them. Lentils can generally be cooked directly until tender, but again, please check the packaging.


Now you're ready to start. Certain varieties of pulses are easy to come by in this part of Italy, such as green lentils, or the bagged mixes of green, brown, puy and red lentils for soups and stews. We favour green lentils on their own, but try to find puy lentils, too. These are a darker green, and speckled with light green-grey spots. Both types hold their shape and texture when cooked and lend a delicious, meaty texture and a fine, almost musky stock-like taste to stews, soups and salads.


Bean-wise, you'll find borlotti, cannellini and haricot beans by the tonne on the shelves of your local supermarkets, as well as butter beans and chickpeas. Of course, plenty of other imported or non-native types of beans, such as black beans, red kidney beans, are also available throughout Italy, but let's focus on the locals first. Borlotti and cannelloni beans come into season in between late summer and autumn, so at the moment you're more likely to find dried or tinned versions in the shops. Unless you're using these as a principal ingredient in a lightly flavoured salad, it's unlikely that you'll be able to tell the difference from the fresh versions, so stock up.


Of course, you can use any of these in a stew, with plenty of tomato, celery, onion, garlic, lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Stirring a bit of butter into this once it's cooked on the stove top, transferring it to a covered oven-proof pot, and then finishing it off by baking it will make it extra-rich; stir in a bit of fresh parsley and some grated lemon zest at the very end for extra oomph. Chickpeas and tomatoes, slow-cooked with lemon and garlic, make an excellent accompaniment to grilled or roasted pork. Cannellini beans cooked with toasted garlic and then stewed gently in chicken stock go extremely well with any poultry dish. Slow-cooked haricot beans with as many minestrone vegetables as you can get your hands on are good with fatty meats like pork, rooster and duck.


However, stewing isn't the only way to use beans. They lend themselves perfectly to purees: although you lose the textural complexity of the beans, a smooth, creamy puree or mash brings the fullness of the flavours to the very front of the dish. The paler and bigger the bean, the better it is to use in a puree. Cannellini and butter beans are particularly good as purees. Cook until very soft, drain and then blitz them with a hand blender, adding a little of the water that they've been cooked in to loosen the mixture if it's too thick. Finish with a little olive oil and some seasoning: this is a great base for a dish involving grilled meat or oven-baked or sautéed fish. Chickpeas are also good, as proven by the existence of hummus.


Last but certainly not least, pulses can be used in soups, either blended soups, for which you should use cannellini beans, as they add a very delicate, creamy taste to soups. Parsnip and cannellini bean soup is delicious. However, lentils come into their own here: and for something a little different, try cooking lentils in plenty of chicken stock with a teaspoon of curry powder, onions, garlic, and a bay leaf. Spoon this soup into big bowls and dump a heap of fresh, chopped parsley on each portion: finish with a bit of lemon juice if you feel like it. Ideal for a cold winter's day: nourish yourself on the broth, breathe in the spicy steam and dream about the arrival of spring.



Ingredient of the fortnight: CHICKPEAS

Chickpeas, or ceci, are versatile enough to be used in a number of dishes. They are a staple of Mediterranean cuisines, hence their appearance in a lot of Spanish and North African dishes. In Italy, they are generally found lurking in tins on the shelves or dried.


If you buy dried chickpeas and cook them yourself, the water that you use makes an excellent vegetarian stock, so don't throw it away once you've drained the pulses. Cold cooked chickpeas are good in salads or blended with garlic, tahini and oil to make hummus. If you do this, mash a couple up by hand and stir them through afterwards for extra texture.


Pureeing chickpeas and adding a little of the water that you cooked them with makes them an excellent accompaniment to grilled shellfish and other seafood, particularly squid.



Recipe of the fortnight:



1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 small carrots, peeled and chopped

220g green lentils

1 tbsp oil

1-inch piece root ginger, peeled and chopped

440ml water

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 tsp turmeric

2 tsp curry powder

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp garam masala

1 tbsp plain natural yoghurt


For the lassi:

2-inch piece root ginger, peeled and finely grated

300ml plain natural yoghurt

300ml cold water

1 pinch salt

10 ice cubes



Fry the onion, carrot, garlic and ginger in the oil until starting to soften. Add the lentils and all of the spices except the garam masala. Stir well, and then add the water. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, until the lentils are soft and most of the water has gone. Stir 1 tbsp of yoghurt into the curry and then remove from the heat.



In a large bowl, whisk together the yoghurt, salt and water for the lassi. Add the ginger and stir well. Add the ice cubes and leave for five minutes. Pour into tall glasses and serve with the curry and some rice.



Support The Florentine

The Florentine: keeping you connected.

Established in 2005, The Florentine remains true to its mission as a community magazine. Whether you live in the States, the UK or here in Italy, our aim is to keep you connected to Florence through news, events, arts + culture, food + wine and much more.

Please make a contribution, small or large, so that we can continue our coverage from Florence.

Personal Info

Donation Total: €20,00

more articles