Italian Borlotti Bean Soup

I love borlotti beans

They’re good in an Italian soup with or without pasta.

You can also cook them in stock, garlic and olive oil – reducing the liquid until it becomes an unctuous sauce – then finish it off with loads of chopped fresh parsley.

And Marcella Hazan – one of the doyennes of Italian food writers – uses them to make a fantastic pasta sauce flavoured with rosemary (she calls them cranberry beans).

Fiery red pods

They’re a great thing to grow as they can be cooked straight after being shelled from the fiery red pod – the Italians call them lingua di fuoco or tongue of fire. The fresh beans are a delicate pale green laced with pink markings (the pods are discarded and composted).

They also store well – if you pick them right at the end of the season as the pods are turning crisp and papery on the climbing vine – revealing pink and burgundy beans that look like miniature exotic birds eggs.

Beans drying on a tray
I lay them out on a tray to dry and then store in dry jars to use throughout the winter

When you want to use them you soak them overnight and cook like any other dried bean or pulse. They are a welcome and hearty staple throughout the winter.

Dried and soaked beans
These homegrown dried beans double in size once they’ve been soaked

Save and sow

And as I make this soup with the last of my collected, dried and stored beans I’m saving about to sow thirty or forty of them to sow for this year’s crop. 

They will take a couple of weeks to germinate – I sow in compost in 1 1/2 inch square modules and wait until the last frosts before planting out along a row of bamboo cane supports for them to scramble up.

Like other beans they are a good nitrogen fixer improving your soil for the crop that follows them.

Borlotti Bean Soup

Author: Cath
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 125 g diced onion
  • 125 g diced carrot
  • 125 g diced celery
  • 170 g tomatoes chopped
  • 180 g dried borlotti beans, soaked and cooked until soft or 450 g tinned drained beans
  • 750 ml vegetable stock or more if needed
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
  1. Saute onion, carrot and celery with a little salt on a gentle heat for about ten minutes in a large saucepan.  Sometimes I add a little crushed garlic or if I have no celery I will use leeks. Stir occasionally.

  2. Add tomatoes (you can use fresh skinned tomatoes or tinned ones with their juice) and cook for a further ten minutes stirring occasionally.

  3. Add cooked borlotti beans and bean cooking liquid topped up with stock (I use Marigold Bouillon powder with water).  I usually make sure there's at least two inches of liquid above the beans and vegetables in the pan.

    You can add fresh uncooked borlotti beans instead at this point if you have them (about 1kg in weight in their pods - then shell and discard pods and compost them). Or add some tinned beans like red kidneys.

  4. Simmer for half an hour with the lid on.

  5. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary - you can also take out a few of the beans (a couple of tablespoons and mash them and add back into the pan)

  6. At this point you can add a couple or three handfuls of dried small pasta shapes like orzo or macaroni and cook for a further 10 or 15 minutes making sure there's enough liquid to absorb the extra ingredients. 

    I usually don't bother.

  7. I chop lots of fresh parsley - a couple of tablespoons and add five minutes before I serve.



Make your own compost

Baptised into the Church of Composting!

Two weeks ago I became a member of Norfolk Master Composters.

Thirty of us spent the weekend learning more about turning much of our kitchen and garden waste into gorgeous, crumbly black compost.

Compost bins and signs
We looked at the pros and cons of various methods including a barrel or tumbler composter which speeds up the process

A bin to suit everyone

The Master Composter course, organised by Garden Organic , was held at the Green Britain Centre on the outskirts of the pretty market town of Swaffham.

It seems that when it comes to composting there’s a bin to suit everyone.

Lifting lid off bin
Lifting the lid off the Green Johanna with a black hotbin in foreground

We looked at the pros and cons of most of them including how to make a compact wormery or a Japanese inspired bokashi bin.

And we discussed the efficacy or otherwise of black plastic “dalek” bins (that can often be bought cheaply from the local council) open heaps and everything in between

I’d never heard of some like the Green Johanna which takes cooked food and meat.

Spreading the word

Now we’re expected to spend at least thirty hours over the coming year preaching the good news at plants sales, fetes, at work to colleagues and anywhere else the spirit moves us.

My first attempt last weekend failed miserably.

I picked up all I needed for a outdoor display from the compost co-ordinator, David Hawkyard in Norwich.

But the extreme cold and constant rain meant the Easter Eggstravanza at my local village hall was an indoor affair only.

But writing this blog is one way to encourage others and I hope I can take some information to a nearby plant swap soon.

My own experience

Until a couple of years ago I was a bit half-hearted about composting.

I had a cold heap on my allotment near Norwich which I rarely turned and yet it produced half a cubic metre of reasonable compost each year.

I topped up the veg beds very occasionally with van loads of spent mushroom compost.

And for a time a friend of mine brought me spent hops from his micro brewery to add to the heap.

Making your own compost is much cheaper when you need lots of it for No Dig gardening

But I became almost evangelical about composting three years ago when I moved to a bigger garden where I’ve been trying a No Dig approach.

That’s because it requires lots and lots of new compost every year as a growing medium, soil conditioner and mulch.

I’ve gone from one compost heap to six!

Last spring, Angus, a young Australian visitor helped me reinstate three very rough bays made out of old electricity poles.

We cleared up an area at the bottom of the garden so we could grow more veg.

Veg bed and compost bays
New potato bed and compost bays

And at the end of the summer I managed to make my first “hot” heap from scratch – layering brown and green material with the occasional addition of urine and homemade comfrey liquid.

I was amazed at how quickly it heated up and how it accelerated the composting process.

I pretty much followed this video by Charles Dowding .

You don’t have to go as far as peeing on your compost heap but both the comfrey and the urine are good accelerators along with nettle leaves and horse, cow or pig poo – although I am no longer adding manure as I would like to rely entirely on plant matter.

Seaweed maybe a good alternative but I haven’t tried that yet.



An act of faith

Sowing seed despite the cold snap

It’s an act of faith as it seems like winter will never end – even though it was the spring equinox a few days ago.

And weather forecasters are warning us we’re not out of the woods yet – another massive drop in temperatures from the current balmy 12 Celsius to a miserable 3 degrees  is on the cards.

Mange Tout pea seed
Sowing mange tout peas (Carouby de Mausanne variety) with seed saved from last year

It’s difficult to believe that in three months time these seeds will have grown five or six feet high, produced beautiful lilac flowers and set small, crisp, edible sweet pods that are one of the first harvests from the vegetable garden along with minute courgettes (zucchini), broad beans (fava), and lettuce.

Mange tout peas are at the back to the left of the tunnel

Fresh veg now

Believe it or not we do have vegetables to harvest right now – overwintered purple sprouting broccoli and rainbow stemmed swiss chard that’s sprung back into life under a small fleeced tunnel.

There are also mustard leaves from the polytunnels at the allotment project where I volunteer and a few leeks that survived the extremely hard weather a couple of weeks ago.

The first sowings

The first seed I sowed about a month ago were aubergines (who knows why as I only produced one the size of my thumb last year), tomatoes and a selection of chillis – mostly from saved seed.

Tomato and aubergine seedlings
My tomato and aubergine seedlings are not putting on any growth

They have stubbornly remained at the two-leaf stage even though they’ve been cosseted in the warmth provided by some brand new electric propagators.

I do despair sometimes and wonder why we try and grow vegetables suited to warmer climes.

Maybe we should stick to brassicas, potatoes, peas and beans with the odd root vegetable thrown in.

I am also flying in the face of bitter experience with an early sowing of Florence fennel.

An early sowing of fennel
An early sowing of fennel

The only time I’ve ever had a decent crop is when the seed has been sown after midsummer’s day which means there’s less likelihood of the plants bolting before they’ve had a chance to make decent fat white bulbs.

But I still live in hope!

Other small miracles

I have also sown summer savory – a herb that goes well with broad beans. It acts as a companion plant deterring blackfly but it’s also good added to the cooked beans (a bit like the role basil plays alongside tomatoes).

It’s been sown on top of the compost as it needs lots of light to germinate – fingers crossed. And I guess that is one thing that is really noticeable now – the days are as long as the nights and the light levels have really increased

And a second tray of coriander is up and running.

Coriander seedlings
Coriander is leggy but strong and toughening up outside during the day

Leek seed – both early and longer lasting cultivars – has germinated.

But I have yet to get my potatoes, beetroot, lettuce, brassicas and turnips on the go.

I also intend sowing some chervil, dill and borage soon.

And onions and shallots that I meant to put in before Christmas are still languishing on the table in the glass house. Aaaaargh! I’m already running behind!

No Dig

I am practising no dig for the second year running so today I prepared some more large pieces of cardboard (mainly discarded bike boxes) ready to lay down on my vegetable beds to be topped with compost.

I have made my own compost but may have to resort to buying some more so that I can use it as a thick mulch to smother any weeds.

I will transplant my module sown seedlings into the fertile top dressing once the weather had warmed up. I’ll also direct sow other seeds in a month or so.

Charles Dowding is evangelical about the no-dig method as is Australian permaculture teacher and innovator Morag Gamble.

Her methods are more suited to gardening in the southern hemisphere but there are still some interesting tips to be gleaned from her blog.