Bean there, doing that
Rachel Roddy’s summer braise
This dish has become as much a part of summer for us as sandals and suncream with sand in its lid ...
My parents have a clever kettle. It has a sliding switch at the base that allows you to choose the best temperature for your drink, or task. According to experts, white teas are best made with water at 70C, black tea 85C, herbal infusions 100C (except chamomile which prefers 90C ) and the optimum temperature for coffee is between 91C and 96C. Now, I genuinely want my coffee and tea tasting as good as they can. I would happily push a sliding switch if it brought out the loveliest, softest taste, if it deepened the flavour. If only I could remember!
The kettle may be clever, but it makes me feel like I am not. I will persist though, because temperature matters – in Rome, too, where we don’t even have a kettle, just a metal jug for boiling water on the hob. Boiling hot and freezing cold both have their places, but it’s hard to see anything clearly at such extremes.
It is the same with food. My friend and teacher Carla Tomasi has an inimitable instinct when it comes to temperature. When we cook together, she is as loyal to the temperature of ingredients as she is to their flavour and quality. Many come from her garden: frostbitten fennel and lemons from her tree are brought in to take the chill off; once the sun starts shining, salad, onions and fresh herbs might need a cold plunge to crisp them up. Summer tomatoes picked on a cool morning benefit from a rest on a sunny window ledge; those picked on a hot day, a cool corner. Ingredients are put in and taken out of the fridge in good time. Window ledge resting is strategic.
It is even more the case with cooked food. Carla reminds me of the passionate and particular Bertie Bastalizzo, of whom MFK Fisher writes
in her essay The Secret Ingredient: “We knew her instructions about how long to let the food ‘rest’, before serving it, what temperature to let it rest in, even what to do with it when it was at its peak of restedness.” Carla is absolutely clear about which dishes benefit from a night’s sleep; how herbs and finely chopped onion should sit in olive oil before being mixed with the still-warm (and peeled) potatoes; that butter and sage should sit before being warmed to a sizzle; that bean soups and oilrich braised vegetables rest for so many minutes on a cold day, more on a hot day. This encourages flavours to emerge and deepen, so things taste as good as they can.
The first time I ate today’s recipe was in Volpetti, a rather smart grocery shop in Testaccio, when it still had a functional canteen-like charm and a long counter with a rail you slid your tray along. I was with my friend Alice and we ate roast chicken and a plate of these fagioli corallo al pomodoro
– braised beans in rich tomato sauce – around which was a golden halo of olive oil. “What made it so downright delicious?” we asked each other. “Plenty of good olive oil and salt,” Alice pointed out. It was also that the dish was at the right temperature, as warm and pleasing as the summer day itself. I have been making my own version ever since and it has become as much a part of summer for us as sandals and a tube of suncream with sand in its lid.
In Rome, they called flat green beans coralli. Like the flat beans my mum grows in her garden, unless they are small, they can be tough with an almost dentalfloss-like string that needs tugging off like a wayward thread. Often the answer to tougher beans is boiling or steaming them to tenderness, which means they lose their flavours to the water. Braising or smothering means the beans and tomatoes cook in their own juices and the essential flavours seep into the sauce, which in turn should concentrate, getting thick and rich.
This is not the time for parsimony: use plenty of good quality olive oil and go slow to start. The steamy braise is important – lid off, then on, then off – and the beans need cooking until the squeak has gone and they are tender between your teeth. Cooked this way, beans are a good match for lamb, chicken or fish.
Best of all though is a fat slice of salty cheese, such as feta, which breaks into big crumbs that you squash with the back of your fork into the sauce. Just remember to allow the beans to sit until the right point of “restedness” – taste and you will know.
Braised green beans with tomatoes and onions Serves 4
1 large or 2 small white onions
6 tbsp olive oil
750g green beans, ideally flat 750g ripe tomatoes, peeled if you wish, chopped coarsely
A handful of torn basil leaves
Feta, or other salty cheese, sliced, to serve
1 Peel and slice the onion finely. Warm the oil in a heavy-based frying pan (with a lid) over a medium-low flame. Gently fry the onion with a pinch of salt until it is soft and translucent.
2 Cut or break the green beans into 5cm-long pieces. Add them to the pan and stir well until each piece is glistening with oil. Continue cooking and stirring for a few minutes.
3 Add the tomatoes and another small pinch of salt, stir, then cover the frying pan. After a couple of minutes uncover the pan and stir – the tomatoes should be relinquishing their juices. Cover the pan for another 5 minutes or so.
4 Once the tomatoes have given up their juice, uncover the pan and allow it to simmer, uncovered – stirring every now and then for around 40–50 minutes, or until the beans have become very tender and the tomatoes have reduced into a thick, rich sauce. During the final few minutes of cooking time, stir in the ripped basil leaves. Taste and season with more salt, if necessary
5 Allow to sit for a couple of hours before serving with slices of feta. Even better made a day in advance, kept in the fridge overnight and then brought to room temperature or reheated gently before serving.