As with most other foods, each region of Italy seems to have a favorite variety of legume. Borlotti, or cranberry beans, are preferred in the Veneto region and are usually used in soup. Tuscans prefer cannellini beans and black-eyed peas, while in Puglia they eat a lot of chickpeas, both the black and the white varieties, and cicerchie, an ancient variety of legume that looks like a flattened chickpea. Lentils are a specialty of Umbria.
It takes patience to cook beans well, though not a lot of skill. Most Italian cooks buy the beans dried, soak them in water, then simmer them with aromatic vegetables and herbs. One of the biggest mistakes that novice bean cookers make is not soaking or cooking the beans long enough so that they turn out tender, creamy, and full of flavor. Cooking beans to perfection takes time, but most of the cooking is unattended. It is difficult to give exact cooking times for beans, because a lot depends on the variety and how old they are. Be sure to allow extra time when cooking beans. They can always be reheated if they are done ahead of schedule.
The conventional wisdom about salting beans is that the salt toughens the skins as they cook, so it is best to add the salt at the end of the cooking time. I have experimented with salting before and after cooking and really don't see any difference, but to be safe I generally salt them at the end of the cooking.
Once they are cooked, legumes keep perfectly in the refrigerator for up to a week, or they can be frozen for longer storage. Canned beans can easily be substituted for home-cooked beans and are very convenient for quick meals. Some canned beans are mushy, so try several brands to find one that you like.
From "1,000 Italian Recipes." Copyright 2004 by Michele Scicolone. Used with permission of the publisher, Wiley Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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