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White Beans with Tomatoes – A Quick Version
Using canned beans to put together a meal at home or while traveling is a great way to get a nutritious and tasty dish on the table...fast!
“First, you need good beans.” – Elizabeth David
Cooking beans of all types is a very Italian thing to do in the kitchen. Cooking white beans and combining them with garlic, sage and tomatoes is a popular way Tuscans enjoy their beans…and something I relished making and serving while hanging out in Tuscany.
I remember having this romantic notion that I should pop my soaked beans into a glass, then bury the glass in hot ashes inside a fireplace. This was, after all, the classic preparation of fagioli al fiasco, made famous in the book Under the Tuscan Sun.
I never attempted that classic preparation; it seemed like too much trouble. Plus, I never could find the right kind of glass or to use, which led me to believe most people in Tuscany don’t cook their beans in a glass buried in hot ashes. It sounds good in a book or movie, but in reality, who’s going to soak beans for 12 hours and cook them another 6-8 hours? That’s a lot of trouble for a rustic dish.
When it came to cooking beans in the past, I considered myself a purist – probably even a bit snobbish. I preferred the long soaking times that soften the outer surfaces of beans, followed by the hour or two it took to cook them properly. I was able to add aromatics to the cooking water to give my beans added flavor. I decided when to add the salt...and how much salt to add. And I kept telling my fragile chef’s ego that the beans tasted better...they must because I cooked them in a traditional manner.
The truth is…I was fooling myself. Cooking dried beans often led to uneven cooking – some turned out delightfully mushy, while others had a bite that was more than al dente. So, I’m slowly coming around to the idea of using canned beans in some of my preparations…and I like the idea of having instant access to consistently cooked beans. When I weigh the benefits of canned vs. dried beans, canned beans usually win (but not with hummus…that’s my red line).
I’ve also come to appreciate using canned beans as a simple way to cook a tasty and nutritious meal while traveling...and canned beans are easily accessible in most supermarkets everywhere.
Tip – it’s simple to convert recipes calling for dried beans because most dried beans double in volume and weight once cooked...and that’s some simple math to work with (250 grams of dried beans equal 500 grams of cooked – or, if you prefer, 1/4 pound of dried beans equals 1/2 pound of cooked.
I think the best way to cook white beans is with plenty of sage and garlic. I make sure to use the best extra virgin olive oil I can find; this is one time that the authentic fruity flavor of good oil matters. The oil also emulsifies with the bean liquid and turns into a creamy mass of liquid goodness that coats the beans.
Try giving the beans some added life – some zing in the mouth – by adding a splash of fruity white wine vinegar or lemon juice with as many chili peppers as you like...additions that will have your mouth dancing.
Any white bean variety works with this recipe, but cannellini beans offer a more authentic Italian note...one that must be close to slowly cooked beans in a jar.
Yield: makes about 6-8 servings
500 grams (one pound) of canned white beans (cannellini, if possible)
1 medium onion, halved
7 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 large bunch of fresh sage leaves (at least one dozen leaves, plus a few more for garnish)
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 whole chili peppers, split and seeds removed for added fire (optional)
500 grams (one pound) of chopped tomatoes
60-90 ml (1/4-1/3 cup) of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar (optional)
Place the beans and their liquid into a medium-sized pot. Cover the beans with additional fresh water if necessary.
Add the halved onion, 4 whole cloves of garlic, 1/2 of the sage leaves, freshly ground black pepper (about 12 turns from the mill), and optional split chili pepper. Cover the pot and bring to a slow simmer over medium heat. Add the extra virgin olive oil and reduce the temperature to low. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Remove and discard the sage leaves, onion halves and chili pepper if used. Add the chopped tomatoes. Chop the remaining sage leaves and add them to the pot. Cook over medium-high heat to break down the tomatoes – about 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper, then add a splash of optional vinegar or lemon juice. Enjoy warm or cold.
Tips and Variations
Add a handful of massaged kale or wilted spinach to the beans to increase the fiber of this dish – something that is important while traveling.
I almost always use small date tomatoes for this recipe. I like their sweetness; they don’t have a lot of skin that slips off into the beans.
Leftover beans can be puréed in a blender (if you happen to have access to one). Add enough water to get the beans moving, and be sure to scrape the sides of the blender often. The result is a beautiful (and simple) dip for crackers, cut-up vegetables or bread.
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