Recently at Di Palo Fine Foods in Manhattan's Little Italy, I noticed packaged and flavored lupini beans. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my favorite snacks transcend the realm of something Italian-Americans remember their old uncle spitting onto the lawn.
Lupini beans are packed with protein and fiber and make a pretty healthy snack. But $3.99 for one small bag? You can buy a huge jar of brined lupini beans for that price in New York's real Little Italy in the Bronx.
Whenever my father tagged along with my mother on a trip to the grocery store, the bill would inevitably be higher as he’d always sneak three extra things into the cart: batteries, WD-40, and lupini beans. My brother and I loved these little yellow beans which were the same color as the family's Dodge Omni.
After the beans had been rinsed, my brother and I would expertly nibble the tip of the shell, then squeeze and and pop the salty beans in our mouth with increasing speed, unable to be full or satisfied. Dad would start to laugh as he’d recall his own father’s explanation about the addictive nature of lupini beans.
The Lupini Bean Legend
It was a convoluted story that went something like this: Jesus came upon a field of lupini beans and tried to hide. But the lupini bushes started making noise and drew attention to Jesus, who had to continue running and find a new place to hide. And for that reason, Jesus cursed the lupini bushes so that whoever eats them will never be able to satisfy their hunger.
What I had dismissed as a strange story turned out to be a Southern Italian folk tale. There is a rich body of similar stories from the turn of the century, when people would comfort themselves with apocryphal tales of Mary, Jesus, and the saints as a way to contemplate and ease their own hunger and suffering. For poor children who had only lupini beans to eat, which would never satisfy their hunger, their parents would tell a similar tale in which the Virgin Mary was escaping King Herod’s attack on baby boys and running through a field of lupini beans. Again, the lupini beans made noise and were cursed by God.
How to Brine Your Own Lupini Beans
Buy them from the barrel at Mike's Deli or pick up a large jar at Teitel Brothers. But if you really want to brine your own, you can buy dried lupini beans also at Teitel Brothers or at Mount Carmel Foods inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
Though the process isn’t difficult, it takes a full two weeks as well as valuable real estate inside your refrigerator. They need to be rinsed and soaked daily in order to rid them of their bitterness and toxins.
If you live in the country side and are lucky enough to have a stream nearby, you can do what poor Southern Italians would do which is to put the beans into a pillow case and place it in the stream to let the water wash continually over the beans for 24 hours.
BRINED LUPINI BEANS
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time:1 hour plus 2 weeks soaking time
Makes 1 pound
1 pound dried lupini beans (easily found at Whole Foods)
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 sprigs parsley, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 garlic cloves (optional)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (optional)
Soak beans overnight in a bowl of cool water. The next day, rinse the beans and then place in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to simmer for one hour. Rinse the beans once again and then place them in a gallon jar or large bowl with cold water.
For the next two weeks, rinse the beans every day and then replace the fresh water. This removes the bitter alkaloids. If the bitterness is not gone in two weeks, add a few more days’ worth of rinsing.
Once all bitterness is removed, make a brine by dissolving the kosher salt in a gallon of fresh water, and add parsley, garlic, and balsamic vinegar, if desired.
Store the lupinis refrigerated in the brine. Eat them plain or with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and fresh ground black pepper.