Tuscans are known for being the biggest bean-eaters in Italy, so much so that they are sometimes called mangiafagioli in Italian. But Romans are no slouches in the legume department, either. They love fava beans, of course, and they make a mean pasta e lenticchie, for example, even if the Roman version is actually quite different than the one Angelina used to make. But the ne plus ultra of Roman bean cookery has got to be fagioli con le cotiche, a kind of Roman-style pork and beans, made with cannellini or (even better, in my book) borlotti beans simmered in tomato sauce with strips of pork rind. A classic example of how Roman frugality can produces hearty and delicious results.
For simmering the beans:
- 500g (1 lb.) dried cannellini or borlotti beans
- A garlic clove
- A sprig of fresh parsley
For simmering the pork rind:
- 250g-500g (1/2-1 lb.) pork rind, depending (see Notes)
- A stick of celery
- 1/2 medium onion, in one piece
- Salt and pepper
For the tomato sauce:
- 250-500g (1/2- 1 lb.) canned tomatoes, depending (see Notes)
- 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- A handful of parsley, finely chopped
- Lard or olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Soak the beans overnight. Simmer the beans in fresh water to cover, along with a garlic clove and parsley (if using—see Notes) until quite tender, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Meanwhile, prepare the pork rind:
Raw pork rindPre-boil the rind for about 15 minutes. Remove the rind and let it cool for a few minutes. When it is cool enough to handle, cut it into thin strips. (Some recipes will tell you to trim of the fatty underside with a knife, but this is a bit too fussy for my taste and, anyway, I like the fattiness!) Then simmer the strips in water to cover, lightly salted, with the celery and onion. They will be done when they are tender but still have some bite to them, which will take, say 45-60 minutes.
Prepare the tomato sauce in a large casserole large enough to contain all the ingredients. A terracotta or enameled cast iron pot would be ideal. Make a soffritto by sautéing the onion, garlic and parsley gently in lard (the traditional choice) or olive oil, seasoning while the odori are cooking. Add your canned tomatoes, puréeing them by passing them through a food mill into the pot. Let the tomatoes simmer until they have reduced into a sauce, about 15-20 minutes.
Now it’s time to put it all together: Add the pork rind to the tomato sauce and let them insaporire (see Glossary) for a minute or two, then add the cooked beans. Mix everything together well. Add a bit of the pork rind water and/or bean water if you find that the mixture is a bit dry. Simmer it all for about 30 minutes to allow the flavors to get to know each other.
Serve your pork and beans hot. Like many long-simmered bean dishes, fagioli con le cotiche are even better if allowed to rest overnight and reheated the next day.
Raw pork rind can be hard to find in the States. I am fortunate enough to have a farm supplier close by that has it, but where I live, in any event, you will rarely (if ever) find it in a supermarket. I suppose that butchers will also carry it or take an order. Unfortunately, there is no real substitute for it in this dish. After all the name of the dish is ‘beans and pork rind’ in Italian! But if you were to substitute pork belly or some other fatty cut of pork, I would venture you’d wind up with something quite tasty.
The basic building blocks of this recipe—simmer the beans, simmer the pork rind, make the sauce and mix it all together and simmer for a bit more—is common to all the recipes you’ll see for this dish. But like so many classics, there are variations on the basic theme, and they revolve mostly around three factors:
First, the ratio of bean to pork rind. In some recipes, the ratio is 2:1, or even greater, so that the pork is really only there as a flavoring agent. In these versions, the dish can serve as a a contorno. In other recipes, the ratio can increase to as much as 1:1, so that the pork is there as an equal partner, so to speak. In these heartier versions, the dish graduates to a full contorno or even a piatto unico or one-dish meal, accompanied by nice crusty bread and followed by a green salad and perhaps a piece of fruit. I just use as much of each as I have on hand, since it will be delicious no matter what! (By the way, if you have any left over, these beans go great with pasta.)
Second, the dish can be more or less in rosso, by adding more or less tomato, depending on your preference. And you can use canned tomatoes passed through a food mill (my preference) or a passata di pomodoro.
Third, the aromatic vegetables (aka odori) that make up the soffritto for the tomato sauce and are thrown in to simmer with the pork and beans vary from recipe to recipe. The above options are the ones I like, but for example, many recipes will tell you to make the tomato sauce with a classic soffritto italiano of onion, celery and carrots. Personally, I don’t care for the sweetness that carrots lend to beans, and prefer to stick to the allium family. Some recipes will have you simmer your beans with no aromatics at all, since they will be absorbing the flavors of the tomato sauce and pork in the final stage anyway. And the pork rind, too, can simply be simmered in lightly salted water.
Some recipes also call for adding a bit of prosciutto fat to the soffritto, but personally I’d call that gilding the lily, especially if, as I like to do, you are cooking with lard. Even I have limits to my pork fetishism.