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Beans are harvested in summer; it takes about 60 days from planting to harvest and some of us who are over 40 remember shelling fresh beans’ pods for hours when we were young.

Ancient Romans ate cowpeas (fagiolo dall’occhio), large-seeded broad beans like fava, and lupins, but they did not consider it 'noble' food because it was easy to grow, drought-tolerant, low cost, it had a long shelf life, and it gave abundant crops. Everybody could afford it. Latin Poet Virgil even called cowpeas 'vilem phaseulum' (vile bean) to underline its status in the food hierarchy.

After the Europeans arrived in South America and found the 'phaseolus vulgaris', the beans’ varieties we know best, beans suddenly became a life-saver staple in the Old Country.

Towards the end of the 1500s Annibale Caracci painted The Beaneater (Il mangiatore di fagioli) to testimony how beans became poor people’s healthy meat. No wonder: beans have significant amounts of fiber and soluble fiber that help lower blood cholesterol. Beans are also high in protein, complex carbohydrates, folate, and iron.

Today there are about 40,000 bean varieties. The varieties in Italy vary from region to region and sometimes are limited to a specific area of a region, but you can find white kidney beans (cannellini) and cranberry beans (borlotti) almost everywhere.

Cannellini are white and delicate, about 1/2" long, with a firm texture and skin and have a nut-like flavor. Very popular in Tuscany, they are the reason Tuscans are called "bean eaters", or "mangiafagioli".

Borlotti are white with red markings, become brown when you cook them, and are nutty in flavor but more robust than cannellini, with a creamy texture, perfect for ‘pasta e fagioli’ (past 'e fasul).

Soak your dry beans overnight in twice their volume of water, then boil them with a couple of leaves of fresh sage, a couple of cloves of garlic, for 10 minutes before reducing the heat and simmering them for 1-2 hours or until tender but firm.

You can cook fresh beans by bringing them to a boil in enough water to cover them by at least two inches, and cook for 20 minutes.

Salt beans only towards the end because salt toughens them, and remember: beans need to be boiled for at least 10 minutes at a medium-high temperature to remove the toxins that can cause gastric distress. And if their skins are shriveled, they're too old, don’t buy them!

Once they are cooked, you can mixed them in salads; use them in soups with pasta (pasta e fagioli, gnocchetti sardi alla contadina, pisarei e fasò) or with vegetables soups (minestrone, ribollita) or soups with grains (barley or farro); in stews with pork or goat or tripe (busecca) or just with tomato sauce (fagioli all'uccelletto) and stale bread (pancotto con i fagioli).