Know your beans

Tus­cans know that beans are bet­ter baked: they come up richer, rounder and creamier. Serve with fat sausages, in a mine­strone, or with a lit­tle of their own broth and olive oil

The Guardian - Cook - - Baking - Rachel Roddy

Every year, usu­ally in Oc­to­ber, we visit Maremma, a glo­ri­ous cum­mer­bund of a re­gion strad­dling lower Tus­cany and higher Lazio. We stay at the same ho­tel, an old-fash­ioned place that sits in folds of green, run im­pec­ca­bly and kindly by a woman called Gra­ziella, who looks like a com­bi­na­tion of Is­abella Ros­sellini, Pa­tri­cia Rout­ledge and Robin Wil­liams as Mrs Doubt­fire. We do the same things: lie in sul­phurous hot springs, have one mon­u­men­tal ar­gu­ment, walk, play cards. We eat the same things – aqua­cotta, white beans, pep­pery beef stew, bread – and drink red wine.

Marem­mani know how to cook white beans, sim­mer­ing them un­til ten­der, of­ten in ter­ra­cotta, and oc­ca­sion­ally in time-hon­oured fash­ion, al fi­asco, in a glass flask in the em­bers of a fire. Fat, ten­der, creamy and of­ten still warm, the beans are served with a lit­tle of their own broth and some ex­tra vir­gin olive oil – you can’t talk about white beans in Tus­cany with­out talk­ing about ex­tra vir­gin olive oil.

If Rome taught me to love beans, Maremma made me a bean-eater. There are plenty of strongly held opin­ions about cook­ing beans in Maremma … in Tus­cany ... in Italy. Just like learn­ing a lan­guage, you lis­ten and re­peat; then once you are con­fi­dent, you do it your way. Then you may get stuck in your ways, dig­ging in your kitchen heels. I am not sure why I had never thought to cook beans in the oven be­fore – which is near­est to the em­bers, I sup­pose – but I hadn’t. I now know it is a good way, pro­duc­ing plump, deeply flavoured beans. Not that you can’t get beau­ti­fully flavoured beans on the stove top, but it must be some­thing about the ef­fect of bak­ing as op­posed to boil­ing heat: the taste of both beans and broth is richer and rounder some­how.

It’s the same with sage: in the oven it loses its ag­gres­sive bit­ter­ness, tak­ing on a savoury, al­most meaty fra­grance. Gar­lic, too, ben­e­fits from bak­ing; it brings out its kinder side, the inside of the cloves be­com­ing so sweet and soft it can be squeezed from the skin like cream from a tube. I add salt to the beans, along with the oil and herbs. (Sea­son­ing at the start is dif­fer­ent from sea­son­ing at the end: I don’t be­lieve it tough­ens the beans, as some peo­ple say, but if you pre­fer, add salt at the end.)

Re­mem­ber­ing to soak the beans – that’s the thing. One way is never to put them away, even if it is in a large, pos­si­bly at­trac­tive Kil­ner jar. Leave them in slightly ir­ri­tat­ing full view. A friend once sug­gested leav­ing beans be­side the corkscrew, so when you open a bot­tle at night, you skit­tle the beans into a bowl and cover them with wa­ter for an overnight swell. The next morn­ing, as you make cof­fee or tea, you cook them.

Apart from the soak, and the ini­tial al­most-boil, these beans re­ally are no bother – five things are gath­ered to­gether, then you let the oven work its ev­ery­day alchemy. There are some who think low and slow is best. Just over an hour at 170C works for me.

So what to do with your beans? 450g of beans pro­vides enough for two meals for four peo­ple. You could eat them as they do in Maremma, with more olive oil, bread and red wine. Al­ter­na­tively, they are ex­cel­lent with fat sausages. You de­cide whether you want them brothy, or slightly creamier – in which case puree a few beans and then mix them back in.

Then there is mine­strone. Fry a sof­fritto of car­rot, onion and cel­ery in ex­tra vir­gin olive oil. Add a diced potato, some pump­kin, a hand­ful of kale, some parme­san rind and cover with enough bean broth and wa­ter to make up a litre. Sim­mer for 40 min­utes and add the beans in the last 10 min­utes. If you have left­over mine­strone, you could

ri­bol­lire – re­boil – and serve it over old bread for ri­bol­lita.

So there you have it: sug­ges­tions for bean eat­ing as we say good­bye – pos­si­bly good rid­dance – to 2016. A pan of white beans Enough for two meals for four peo­ple 450g dry can­nellini beans 3 gar­lic cloves 6 sage leaves 5 tbsp ex­tra vir­gin olive oil Salt

1 Soak the beans in plenty of cold wa­ter for 10 hours. Drain and rinse the beans, then add to a large oven­proof pot or casse­role with a lid. Cover with cold wa­ter, mak­ing sure the wa­ter comes a good cou­ple of fin­gers above the beans.

2 Pre­heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3½. On the stove top, over a medium-low heat, bring the beans slowly to just-be­fore-the-boil (they mustn’t boil), skim­ming away any sur­face foam, then add the whole, un­peeled cloves of gar­lic, sage, olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Put the lid on the pan and trans­fer to the oven for 1 hour and 15 min­utes, or un­til the beans are ten­der and sur­rounded by just a lit­tle cloudy broth. Check the sea­son­ing and squeeze the gar­lic from the skin and stir it into the broth if you wish. Serve with more olive oil on top, with sausages, or as part of a soup.

Cook’s tip The beans will keep, cov­ered, for 4 days in the fridge. You could also add a bay leaf to the pan: it com­ple­ments sage and gives a lovely fra­grance.

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