Good Life

Eats & drinks | The best beans are worth a hunt

Romano, or Italian, green beans are scarcer to find than regular beans.
Romano, or Italian, green beans are scarcer to find than regular beans. Photo provided

This column originally ran in July 2000, which makes my first encounter with the Scalzi family more than 20 years ago. Sadly, Jan is no longer with us, but her husband Dante reports that the rest of the family is doing well — and still enjoying these beans.

Although it had been six years since we last spoke, Jan Scalzi was doing exactly what I might have expected when I called last week to ask her permission to publish a recipe she gave me long ago.

“Funny you should call now,” the State College woman said. “I’m just freezing beans.”

Not any ordinary green bean, though. She was blanching and bagging Romano, or Italian, green beans with flat, succulent pods that she grows along with some basil, parsley and sage in a small row alongside her patio.

In bygone full-time catering days, her daughter Maria Scalzi married Mark Wherley and Jan had given me a couple of family salad recipes to prepare for the late summer wedding. They were both very good, one using seashell pasta, fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes in a classic combination. The other, however, was a radical combination of flavors, for me, that was remarkable for its utter simplicity and reserve. Every year since then I am driven to track down those particular beans and get aggressive at the local farmers markets on my hunter-gatherer forays.

Seasonal vegetables available right now include zucchini, eggplant, corn, broccoli, cabbage, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and green beans, along with their far superior Italian cousin, Romano beans. Italian green beans are scarcer than regular beans, but well worth the hunt. Jan, in fact, grew frustrated trying to find them and now grows all that she needs right outside her back door.

All beans are part of the family Leguminosae, which derives from the Latin word, legere, which means “to pick.” There are three primary species. The broad, or fava bean (Vicia faba), was domesticated around 3000 B.C. in the Mediterranean region and was the only bean known to the ancients until the discovery of the New World. The two others, with longer histories, are native to the Americas. The lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) dates from 6000 B.C. from the vicinity of Lima, Peru. The ubiquitous common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), farmed in Central America from 6000 B.C., has developed into literally hundreds of varieties that include both beans that are eaten fresh in their immature pods, such as green beans, French beans, snap beans, wax beans and Romano beans, as well as mature beans that are removed from their pods and then dried, such as lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and soybeans.

Leguminous plants are considered a soil-enriching crop because within their shallow root system are colonies of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that improve soil fertility.

When rotated with soil-depleting plants, they balance the ecosystem. Another differentiation specific to legumes is that they have seeds in pods. These pods are botanically considered a fruit though in a culinary sense they are treated like a vegetable.

There are both bush and climbing pole-type varieties of Italian green beans, renowned for their “meaty” pods and rich bean flavor. Look for beans that are called Italian, Roma or Romano. Often certain regions have colloquial names for their favorite varieties. Commercial varieties tend to be bush types that produce uniform beans that mature at the same time for easy harvest. Pole beans yield for a longer time than bush beans and are good for continual picking. All green beans should be picked when the pods are almost full-grown but before the outlines of the seeds can be seen. Most varieties of green beans, including the broad Italians, have been bred to be stringless, which facilitates their preparation.

Jan’s recipe is actually from her husband Dante’s parents. It’s been used so often in the Scalzi family that one cousin, Rafaele from Italy, claimed that he had to move out of the senior Scalzi household where he lived after first coming to America just to get away from that omnipresent platter of beans. Bet he’s craving them, now, at this time of year.