Large, creamy white bean often included in Italian cooking. Also known as Northern beans, this legume makes an excellent vegetarian substitute for both fish and chicken due to its rich texture. Cannellini beans are a very popular bean in Italy, particularly in Tuscany, where the people living there have been affectionately nicknamed, mangiafagiole, or "beaneaters". I am sure anyone who has travelled in Tuscany was encouraged to try a plate of these creamy, delicious beans as a side dish. Cannellini are often the bean of choice used in Tuscan cooking, most notably in Fagioli all'Uccelletto, where boiled cannellini beans are sautéed in olive oil, sage and tomatoes, the way small birds (uccelli) are prepared in this part of Italy. They are however, also eaten throughout Italy, and many regions have their own traditional recipes for dried beans. Because it maintains its shape well when cooked and has a mellow flavour, the cannellini bean is excellent in many dishes, and can be used interchangeably with other white beans in many recipes.

History

Beans were a staple of the Roman and Greek diet, and some of the bean recipes still used today originated from that period. Beans have always been an important ingredient in peasant cooking, but during the Renaissance, Catherine de Medici tried to refine Italian cuisine, and beans were all but forgotten for a period by the nobility and upper class. Because of their highly nutritious yet very economical qualities however, beans slowly became an integral ingredient in Italian cuisine once again, and remain an important ingredient in an Italian kitchen.

Buying

Buy loose dried beans from a busy market with a steady turnover. Look for beans that are off white in colour with shiny, firm skins. Beans with very wrinkled, hard skins, are often too old, and will have deteriorated in flavour. If buying packaged beans check for the expiry date, and don't buy any that have expired. Once home, transfer beans to a glass jar with a couple of chilli peppers in it which will help prevent bug invasion. If you need the beans the same day and don't have the time to soak them overnight, try the quick soak method. To do this, place the beans in a pot with four times the amount of cold water. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Next remove the beans from the heat, and cover. Let sit 1 hour.

Storing

Seldom eaten fresh, cannelloni can be found year round, and store well in a sealed container.

Preparing

To prepare cannellini, they are best soaked overnight in water. The next day, simply discard this soaking water and cover once again with cold, unsalted water.

Cooking

After soaking and the water refreshed, bring to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes to eliminate the toxins that cause some people stomach aches, and then reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for one to two hours, or until the beans are tender. This cooking time will vary on the size of the bean, as well as how old it is. It is said that salting the water you are cooking the beans in toughens the skin, and I generally do not use salt in the water for most bean dishes.

However, if I am planning to use the beans in salads, where you really don't want a mushy bean, add salt to the water. Once cooked, you can use your beans in an unlimited number of ways, including in soups, salads, as an appetizer dressed with oil and herbs to name just a few. See Cooking Dried Beans.

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