I entertained last night, a delightful intimate gathering of adults for my friends Howard and Kristina Case, importers of perfectly and lovingly selected Italian food products. There is much for which my cooking is thankful to the Cases, and one thing in particular: deciding to import fagiolina del Trasimeno, despite the fact that its price makes it an almost impossible to sell good. Indeed, I believe I may be it for clients who purchase this legume.
Fagiolina is a tiny, multicolor bean, autochthonous to the Lake Trasimeno area in my native region, Umbria. It is ancient, documented as early as Etruscan times. It requires no soaking, has thin skin and a creamily firm consistency. Cultivating and harvesting this bean is a task so labor intensive to almost have caused its disappearance. Now-a-days, and after a designation as one of the Slow Food Presidia, fagiolina is finally carving a name on Italian tables outside its area of production.
The flavor of fagiolina is this side of ashy enough, that it prompted one of my sisters to include it in the group our family jokingly and affectionately calls atonement foods: think of it as a delicate version of black eye peas, with a much smoother texture and a remarkable creaminess for a bean that holds its shape so well even after lengthy braising.
To me, fagiolina is the tug I feel when hit by the memory of my mother's minestra con l'osso del prosciutto-soup with prosciutto bone. It is the exhilaration of a child roaming unsupervised in a mound of dry beans, chasing field mice, and that child's certainty that home is the smell of those very beans and clay inside a crock overnighting on embers. Fagiolina carries the inextricability that food, mind, heart hold for me. And that's what shapes the passion I have been lucky enough to turn into work.
Below is the recipe it inspired last night.
for 6 people: 3 to 4 pounds lamb shoulder salt to taste 8 very small onions 1 carrot 2 celery stalks 2 marjoram sprigs grated zest of 1 lemon 1/2 tablespoon paprika 4 tablespoons lard 2 cups fagiolina del Trasimeno splash dry white wine 2 cups tomato passata 2 tablespoons tomato concentrate pepper to taste
Ask your butcher to cut the lamb shoulder in largish stew chunks leaving the bones in. Bones do wonders for the flavor of any stew. Salt the meat generously and let it come to room temperature.
In the meantime, peel and quarter the onions, chop the carrot and celery, pick and mince the marjoram leaves and mix them with the lemon zest and paprika.
Melt and heat 3 tablespoon of the lard in a skillet and brown the lamb on all sides in it. Do so in batches if necessary as to not overcrowd the skillet. Transfer the meat to a roasting pan and add the fagiolina.
Add the remainder of the lard to the skillet and stir in the marjoram, zest and paprika mix. Toast for 2 to 3 minutes, lower the heat to medium and add the onion. Season with a generous pinch of salt and soften until translucent. Lastly add the carrots and celery and sautè for another 8 to 10 minutes, until everything is soft and fragrant.
Deglaze with the wine. Add the passata and 4 cups warm water. Stir in the tomato concentrate and bring to a boil. Pour the liquid over the lamb and beans. The meat should be about 2/3 of the way submerged while the fagiolina should be completely covered by water.
Season with salt and pepper, cover with aluminum foil and place in a 400˚F oven for about 2.5 to 3 hours. Stir occsionally until the beans are thoroughly cooked and meat comes easily off the bone.
- Fagiolina doesn't come by easily. Contact Howard and Kris to see if they can send you some, otherwise, you can make do with any kind of small, thin skinned bean. If it requires soaking, do so the night before
- I suggest making more stew than you think you will eat as this dish is even better the day after
- I find that using lard for browning imparts stews with one more layer of depth, but feel free to use olive oil