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
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.