tuscan bean eaters

white beans sink

I frequent the local library, the same one I went to as a child in fact, something viscerally comforting about the continuity.  I also find satisfaction in the fact that many people frequent it, from all different ages and walks of life, a melting pot of personas, drawn like moths to the light of this communal space. Homeless people sleeping in chairs, students furrowing brows over computers, children screeching with delight (and other things, I am sure) and pulling out book after book from the shelf to rifle through. Everyone seeking their own kind of solace here, the smell of both musty and new pages mingling. This is where you fall in love with books.

My favorite row is, big surprise, the food and cooking one, particularly the international subsection. All the way in the back, the quiet area, where life seems to slow and I feel like I can take a deep breath.  I don’t actually own many cookbooks at all, mostly because I find that they never get much use- with a few well worn exceptions, my Alice Waters, Ottolenghi, Marcella Hazan, David Tanis, faithful friends that often get pulled off my shelf and consulted, like calling up your mum on the phone to talk you through that recipe she makes. Reassuring. All the same, I do love cookbooks, though, and often check out towering stacks of them to thumb through, feeling the same thrill I used to get while poring over my mom’s Bon Appetit magazines as a kid, all the exciting ingredients and foods and photographs, unfolding a whole new world in front of me, via food, always food.   

While looking through the aforementioned row, I came across a book.  It’s called The Tuscan Year and is quite slim, really a Hemingway-sized novel of a book, paperback, I nearly missed it because it was almost imperceptibly wedged between 2 much more giant books. In it, Elizabeth Romer “recounts the daily life and food preparation of the Cerotti family, her neighbors in a valley between Umbria and Tuscany” month by month, a snapshot of a year in food; gardening, cooking, stories and little line drawings all tumbling through, just as much about daily life as it is about the food, as it should be- food is always woven into life. Thumbing through quickly, I knew I would like it, and hurriedly checked it out, typing my library card number rapid fire into the self checkout (I know mine by heart, a fact which I derive an interesting sort of satisfaction, kind of like when you transfer something into a container and it fits just so and you can’t help but be a bit smug).

I did like it. In fact, I liked it so much that I ordered a copy of my own, and got hung up on a part that talked about beans, white beans in particular, cannellini. Elizabeth Romer says, “Tuscans are also partial to beans, which they eat seasoned with their best olive oil. The nickname for Tuscans in Italy is in fact mangiafagioli- the bean eaters. Although the basic characteristic of Tuscan food is simplicity , this does not signify that its preparation is easy and needs no care. From the market or garden to the table great attention and concentration are applied to the choice of the ingredients and preparation of the dishes.” To me, this attention and concentration is a hallmark of Italian food in general. Very simple, good ingredients chosen and cooked with care become elevated into deeply satisfying dishes.

Although I have been cooking white beans this way for many years, with garlic and sage, I had to make another pot after reading this section. The finished beans are always incredibly good, leaving you happily wondering if, in fact, beans are your favorite thing to eat. I made a batch, we ate them 3 different ways, and then I decided to write about them. Because we are decidedly bean eaters, and after making these, you will be too. x Amanda

the pot of beans

500 g cannellini beans
1 tbsp kosher salt
a large sprig or two fresh sage
4 whole cloves garlic, peeled and roughly smashed

First things first, soak the beans overnight or up to 24 hours, I know it’s lousy to have to remember to do something a full day in advance. A good trick is to put the package/container of dry beans on the counter by the sink, so you remember to soak when you’re doing the dinner dishes. After they’ve soaked, drain and rinse them. Put them in a large pot (I use my Dutch oven) and cover them with cold water. Add the salt (only use 1.5 tsp if you’re using fine salt; kosher is much less dense), sage, and garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until tender. Often people want to know times, but really you’ve got to learn to judge for yourself, each time will be different, depending on the exact variety of bean you use, the age of the beans, the hardness of your water, and so on. Periodically test a bean to see how they’re getting on. As a general ballpark, it will take from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. Keep an eye on the water level, adding more if needed- the beans should always be under the water. Visually, when done, the beans will be plumped and fat, and the texture will be creamy but not mushy.

beans on toast

At this point, you can proceed to use them however you like, our favorite way to eat them when they are just freshly cooked and hot like this is over garlic rubbed toast. Most things taste delicious this way, and beans are no exception. To do so, toast slices of good quality crusty loaf, then rub with a fat garlic clove. In a bowl, add some of the hot, drained beans and drizzle with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil. Heap this on top of the toast, then sprinkle flaky salt on top. Also good is to add some very finely chopped red onion when you mix the beans with the olive oil. This is an excellent, humble meal with a tartly dressed salad and some red wine.

We ate them just like that the first day, with a fennel and orange salad, and I refrigerated the rest. The next day, I made a simple tomato sauce with canned tomatoes (you can find it + the fennel salad recipe in the digital cookbook), and then added the leftover beans, and a large sprig of basil, and cooked until well heated through. We had them with some seared hot Italian Beyond sausages and zucchini alla scapece (similar-ish recipe linked) with plenty of chiles.

beans and tomato sauce
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I had about a pint packed with the leftover beans in tomato sauce, so the day after next I turned them into a soup. Very simple, I’m sure you know the drill: start by finely chopping a small onion, a stick of celery with some of its leaves, a medium carrot, and a few sprigs parsley. Cook that in plenty of olive oil, a bit of salt, nice and slowly, so the vegetables get jammy and soft without coloring. In this way you coax out lots of flavor and don’t need to use stock. Now, add the leftover beans in tomato sauce, and enough water to thin to your preference. At this point, you can add in other vegetables that you have on hand, too (zucchini, tuscan kale, small chopped potatoes, green beans etc.), season with salt, and let simmer 20 minutes to let the flavors meld before ladling into bowls.

We enjoyed this with more garlic rubbed toast (also great is to put the toast on the bottom of the bowl, then ladle the hot soup over it), with a little gem lettuce, fennel, and fava bean salad with lemon, olive oil, and mint.

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