The bean – scientific name, Phaseolus vulgaris – is an annual herbaceous plant of the Leguminosae family. There are nearly 500 different varieties, although cannellini and kidney beans are certainly the best-known types in Italy.
A basic component in the diet of the pre-colonized peoples of the Americas, together with corn, beans were imported to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, and soon enough became a very common ingredient in Italian cooking. The bean plant, to be precise, is native to Central America and to Mexico in particular. Nevertheless, it must be said that in Europe, before the massive import of this plant, there were already some species of beans originating from Africa. The new American beans, however, eventually completely replaced the others, as they are easier to grow and far more productive.
Beans are a good source of protein and provide lots of fiber. Fresh ones contain vitamins A, C, B1, and B2, as well as valuable minerals, such as potassium, phosphorus, sodium, iron, and magnesium. Dry ones are less vitamin-rich, but they contain equal amounts of other valuable elements.
In the marketplace, there are fresh beans (available from May to November), dried to be cooked, or cooked beans in cans. You can combine them with grains for a hearty one-dish meal that is complete from a nutritional point of view, or cook them together with other legumes and fresh seasonal vegetables to make a great minestrone. Pureed, they are also used in the weaning of children early on in childhood.
All beans are cooked before eating, but they are cooked in different way, depending on whether they're fresh or dried. If they're bought fresh, they should be eaten within 2-3 days. Break open the shells or pods and detach the contained seeds, doing this step just before cooking to prevent their drying when they come in contact with air. Rinse them under running water, then boil them directly in boiling salted water over low heat. Cooking time varies, depending on the bean variety. Do not stir them during cooking to avoid their breaking up. If you buy them dry, rinse them under running water and let them soak in warm water for between 8 and 12 hours, depending on the type of bean.
Discard any legumes that float to the surface, and rinse the remaining ones with water. Proceed then with the cooking: place the beans in an earthenware pot or in a regular pot, cover them with cold water and bring to a boil over low heat, skimming off the foam as it forms. Continue with the cooking, from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the type of bean.
If you wish, you can add fresh herbs, spices or flavorings to the cooking water. In this way, you'll have beans that have a more intense and aromatic flavor.
The bean has a supporting role in the popular English tale, “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In the fairy tale, Jack, the main character, is persuaded by an old man to sell his cow in exchange for a bag of magic beans. Once Jack's mother learns of the trade, she becomes very upset and throws the beans out the window, sending her son to bed without supper. But the next morning, to Jack's great surprise, the beans that had been thrown to the ground had sprouted a huge beanstalk. Jack decides to climb up it, until he reaches an immense castle built on the clouds, where a giant lives...