If you love Italian food and love to eat local, fresh food all year, I can’t imagine a busier season than fall. All the plants produce their last burst of vegetables and fruit and you can pick them up by the bushel-full at some farmer’s markets. That’s exactly what you’ll find Italians doing at least. Once tomato passata is packed away, it’s time to see what else we can store and freeze to have for the winter. Lately, in addition to recipes, I’m trying to record our ways of preserving and uses of those preserves like green tomatoes and eggplants.
There is some preserving we don’t do anymore, like peas. I remember going to pick bushels of peas with my parents and grandparents and spending long hours on the front porch shucking them from their pods. (Though I ate more than I contributed to the bowl of peas destined for the freezer.) Now with local farms offering flash frozen bags for just a few dollars, it’s hard to justify all the work. I’d rather just spend the time eating peas fresh. But romano beans, also known as cranberry beans, aren’t so common that you would find them already done. But they are a staple of many Italian dishes, from pasta to mashes, soups and stews. I love the deep pink hues on the pods and beans when they are fresh. Cooked up, they are creamy and hearty. Here’s how to preserve a stash for the winter…
First you’ll need to pick out your romano beans. You want pods that are a vibrant pink, but not purple (those are almost ready to be used as seeds). The pods should be full – that is you can feel each bean fully – and with very few black splotches on the outside. Take your beans home and immediately spread them out for at least two days on blankets or towels , this softens the shells so they are easier to split open after they dry a bit.
Next, get a few friends or relatives and a comfortable chair. Pop the shells open with a little pressure from your fingers and remove the beans from pods. Discard any beans that are off-colour, yellow or brown. You end up with bowls and baskets of shiny beans. Rinse the beans well.
We par-boil or blanche the beans before putting them away, for two reasons: once shelled, the beans quickly go dark and unappealing so the blanching preserves their freshness immediately and, blanched beans freeze better, making for faster cooking in the winter. In a large pot of salted boiling water, blanche for 2-3 minutes in batches. Generally, put the beans in once the water is at a boil, then when it returns to a boil you take them out. Place the blanched beans in ice water for 5 minutes to stop the cooking, then drain and spread out on towels to dry completely.
Once dry, place the beans in vacuum seal bags or resealable freezer bags (being sure to remove all the air) and pop them in the freezer. Now, what to do with them later? You can defrost the beans at room temperature or in warm water. They still need to cook for about 20 minutes, so they’ll be one of the first ingredients you add to your soups, stews and pasta dishes. My favourites: pasta fagoli and chili.
Coming up next week, I’ll have a recipe for pasta al forno, using my fall favourites of romano beans and eggplants. Plus a contest with a great prize furnished by Corningware – stay tuned!