Italian Food – Pugliese cooking: a culinary journey

Hello lovers of Italian food and pugliese cooking, big and small! 

Today we offer you a sneak peek into real Pugliese cooking and culture with a simple yet delightful recipe that’ll add a little zing to your veggies, making those plain-Jane green beans a thing of the past.

Italian cuisine is one of the most well-known and loved worldwide, but often grossly oversimplified to signify pizza and spaghetti-and-meatballs. While these are undoubtedly delicious, even more so when made with local ingredients and from scratch in a home kitchen, they’re hardly representative of the sheer vastness of Italian cooking, which changes dramatically from region to region.

As such, we’re excited to share with you some authentic gems of the Southern Italian tradition, which, although less familiar, are every bit as satisfying.

Whether you’re looking to add some healthy yet hearty recipes to your repertoire of Italian favs, or simply starting off on your culinary journey, here below we’ve got an easy to prepare, Southern Italian take on “fagiolini” (fah-jo-lee-nee, a.k.a. green beans) that’s nutritious, delicious, and easy on your wallet.

How the Green Bean Came to Be

While “legumes” (beans, lentils, chickpeas and the like) are typical throughout all of Italy, the cowpea (similar to the black-eyed pea) was actually the first bean to be grown in Italy.

They were cultivated around Magna Grecia, or Great Greece, which included the regions of Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily, where they were brought by the ancient Greeks from Africa. It was only when Columbus took back home samples of the Phaseolus species from the Americas between 1528 and 1532 that the green bean that we know and love today became a staple throughout the Italian peninsula.

Pugliese cooking is poor

And Puglia is no exception. Throughout its history Puglia has been an important agricultural hub in Italy, and, due to both economics as well as climate conditions, the traditional Pugliese cooking was nearly vegan, as meat and other animal-based proteins were pretty hard to come by (and even harder to dry out and cure with all that humidity).

Trademark dishes like orecchiette con cime di rape (Apulian, “little ear” pasta with broccoli rabe), ciceri and tria (fresh pasta with chick peas and fried bread), and fave and cicoria (fava bean purée with chicory) are testaments of the central role of local legumes and vegetables in traditional Southern Italian “poor cuisine”.

Orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe

Although Pugliese farmers only got to eat meat once in a blue moon, little did they know how lucky they were to be getting all the healthy punch that these humble beans pack in a single serving.

They’re rich in vitamin A and minerals like potassium, iron, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and folic acid (what a mouthful!). They’re also a great source of fiber, making you feeling full while helping sluggish intestines to happily keep things moving along. Add that to a lowered risk of heart disease thanks to their flavonoid content (i.e. anti-inflammatory and blood-clot reducing properties), as well as helping to prevent colon cancer and lower blood sugar, and maybe now you’ve got a newfound respect for this little guy.

The Sagra, a Favorite Italian Pastime

And so, after participating in a ritual fall festival – the sagra – dedicated to the chili pepper, we got inspired to share a classic green bean recipe that combines the best of both worlds into a tasty and healthy side dish.

Late summer and early fall is when typical Italian harvest festivals, known as sagra, come into their own. From the eggplant sagra to the gnocchi sagra to the tripe sagra (not our cup of tea, personally, but to each its own), any reason seems good enough to get together and celebrate down here.

All sagras work pretty much the same way: each town hosts a culinary-based shindig sometime between August and October where a local food (or drink) is featured.

The food is prepared in a myriad of ways and sold at small food stands lining the main square, or piazza. Of course, local wine is always flowing (even more than usual if you hit up the wine sagra!), and usually a stage with live music is set up to add to the festive ambiance. Local craftspeople and artisans sell their wares on tables up and down the adjoining side streets, and locals and non-locals alike take advantage of the great weather for a relaxing evening stroll and tasty, local fare to eat with their families.

This was actually my first sagra in Puglia, and I feel like I totally lucked out with the sagra del pepperoncino a.k.a. the chili pepper festival, which took place at the beginning of September. It was held in Ruffano, about 45 minutes south of Lecce, where I learned that maru is the word for spicy in local dialect.sagra pugliese cooking festival

A rainbow assortment of chili peppers from all over were sold fresh by the kilo or as plants to bring home. And local chefs hawked dishes of varying levels of spiciness from spreads (that ranged from tolerable to tear-jerking to “death might be more pleasant”), to sausages (sold in hot and hotter), taralli (a savory, ring-shaped, Southern Italian cracker), panini, local roasted veggies, and even a dark chocolate and chili pepper gelato.

Fortunately, there were non-spicy options for those who wanted to party without the side effects.

Suffice it to say, our circulatory systems were alive and jumping after all that, and not just because of the teams of brawny young men who were scaling a greased pole to touch a dangling prosciutto leg.

Jokes aside, the health properties of chili pepper, even in small quantities, are not to be underestimated. For those who tend to shy away from the hot sauce, listen up: it’s a powerful antioxidant, it strengthens the immune system and can help prevent colds, and promotes weight loss by literally burning fat and helping to reduce appetite.

So without much further ado, after having experienced my first Southern Italian sagra and feeling on fire (no pun intended) to share some of the tidbits I picked up there, I present to you a typical Pugliese recipe that I think you’ll love as much as we did (even the dog was sniffing around excitedly). You can add as much or as little spice as suits your fancy, either way, they’re delicious!

Perfect as a side dish to accompany steak, pork or chicken, or, to try a true Pugliese treat, use it over pasta, making sure to add a
good-quality grated cheese on top.

Pugliese cooking: Fagiolini alla Pugliese

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 25-30 minutes
  • Level: Easy

pugliese cooking vegetarian recipe fagiolini
Ingredients:

  • 2 ¼ lbs. (1 kilo) fresh green beans (fagiolini)
  • 16 oz. (450 g) peeled tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 fresh chili pepper
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Set a large pot of salted water on the stove and bring to a boil.
  2. In the meantime, start snapping off the pointed ends of the green beans, and rinse them in a colander under running water.To speed things up, you can use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut off the ends of small bunches of 4-5 green beans at a time, instead of going one by one.
  3. Place green beans in the boiling water, and allow to them cook for 15-20 minutes. After which, strain the green beans in the colander. The green beans should be tender at this point.
  4. While the green beans are boiling, crush the two garlic gloves, and chop up the parsley. If you have a vegetable mill, you cangreen beans pugliese cooking pass the peeled tomatoes through. If not, just put them in a bowl and mash them up a little with a fork. Remove the seeds from the chili pepper (and be sure to wash your hands afterwards, since the oil can easily pass from your fingertips to your eyes –or elsewhere – before you can say “mamma mia!”, and trust us, you really don’t want that).
  5. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil for a few seconds before adding the garlic; let it cook for a minute or two over medium-low heat ‘til it turns a lovely, light golden-brown, stirring occasionally.
  6. Add the chili pepper and tomato, turn up the heat, and let cook for another few minutes.
  7. Now add the green beans, and cook for 5-10 minutes over medium heat, mixing well with the sauce.
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and buon appetito!