it’s the key


The Yale lock which opens the front door of our apartment block has been playing up for weeks. Some days it’s more exasperating than others. This morning being the most exasperating yet. As I wriggled and cursed my key, easing it in and then yanking it out, shoving then cajoling, and as my son lay spread-eagled on the pavement, three old men outside the bar next door provided a running commentary. ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ ‘Your son is lying on the pavement.’ ‘It’s blocked.’ ‘It’s the heat.’ Sweat seeped from my brow, dislodging a contact lens on its descent to my chin. One last wiggle I decided, then I’m admitting defeat and joining the locals for an espresso with grappa. ‘Madam, your son is chewing on a cigarette butt.’ The key turned, the door opened and I grabbed Luca with one hand, the offending butt with the other and hurried inside to a chorus of disapproval.

Obviously the lift was jammed somewhere above, so we climbed. Which meant counting and sitting on every third step. Finally we reached the front door and I rummaged for the keys I had already rummaged for but then thrown back in my bagblackhole during our ascent. Keys found and duly untangled from my phone charger and miniature sheep, I pushed the odd one of the bunch into the keyhole. Or tried at least. I was cursed. It was blocked! It was the heat. My son was licking the hall floor. What’s more someone had stolen my doormat. Why would someone steal a doormat? At which point the unmistakable scent of roasting red peppers; sweet, smoky and singed, curled under the door. I looked at the flat number on the doorbell. It had seemed a rather long walk up, but what with all the sitting and counting, and it had crossed my mind the door seemed a peculiar colour, but I’d put it down to my dislodged lens. Clearly the heat was getting to me. We were on the fourth floor.

As I got lunch together and my son threw farmyard animals across the kitchen in our third floor flat, I wished we had some peppers. Surly red ones to char over a hob flame until their skins blistered and blackened and then – after a rest in a plastic bag – peeled away leaving soft, smoky-sweet and endearingly floppy pieces of pepper to be dressed with garlic and oil. We didn’t have any red peppers. Which was, on reflection, a good thing. After all it was extraordinarily hot, far too hot to be messing with hobs and flames and more importantly, we had a pan of beans, tomato and onions to eat.


This may sound like an odd thing to eat – even crave – at this time of year, a full flavoured, slow-cooked, smothered stew of flat green beans, onion, tomato and basil. I promise you it isn’t. At least I don’t think so. Served at room temperature with a wedge of ricotta or weeping mozzarella, a slice of cold roast beef or a frilly-edged fried egg, this stew of tender beans, soft onion, fresh tomato sauce and peppery basil makes a lovely summer lunch.

It’s important to make the stew a few hours or better still the day before you want to eat it, so the flavours can settle and the sauce thicken and take hold of the beans. Ideally the green beans should be flat and so fresh they crack decisively when you break them. The tomatoes should be red, ripe but firm and with a lick of real sweetness (if they’re on the acidic side a pinch of sugar should do the trick). The key is to saute the onion until very soft in plenty of olive oil and then add the beans and stir until each piece glistens. Then you add the tomatoes and cover the pan. The steamy heat trapped under the pan lid helps the tomatoes relinquish their abundant juices at which point you remove the lid and the leave the beans to cook in this rich, red stock before it reduces into a dense sauce. The principle is much the same as peperonata.

This is a straightforward dish but one that requires attentive stirring and tasting, particularly towards the end of cooking when the beans are reaching that perfect point of tenderness and the sauce thickening and clinging. Watch the stew doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. If the sauce reduces too much before the beans are done, a spoonful or two of water should loosen things up. As I’ve already mentioned a rest is vital, ideally over night. Just remember to pull the pan from the fridge a couple of hours before lunch so the stew has time to reach room temperature and thus has that full, comely, and slightly jammy feel about it. Waiting as always is key.


Flat green beans with tomatoes and onions

8 nice portions (it keeps beautifully for up to 3 days in the fridge)

  • A large (or two medium) white onions
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g flat green beans
  • 750 g ripe tomatoes (peeled if you wish and the chopped coarsely.)
  • a small handful of torn basil leaves

Peel and slice the onion finely. Over a medium-low flame warm the oil in a heavy-based pan (with a lid) and then sauté the onion with a pinch of salt until it is soft and translucent.

Cut or break the beans into into 2″ pieces. Add the beans to the pan and stir well until each piece is glistening with oil. Continue cooking and stirring for a few minutes.

Add the coarsely chopped tomatoes and another pinch of salt, stir and then cover the pan. After a couple of minutes uncover the pan and stir – the tomatoes should be relinquishing their juices. Cover the pan for another five minutes or so.

Once the tomatoes have given up their juice, uncover the pan and then allow it to simmer, uncovered – stirring every and then for 40 – 50 minutes or until the beans are tender and the tomatoes have reduced into a thick, rich sauce. During the last 10 minutes of cooking add the ripped basil leaves. Taste and season if necessary

Allow to sit for a couple of hours before serving. Even better made a day in advance, kept in the fridge over night and then brought to room temperature before serving.


And after, quite along time after, two hours to be precise, the end of the ephemeral ricotta with peaches – pale, blushing ones that had been sitting on the extremely sunny balcony wall for an hour or so – and very runny honey.




Filed under Beans and pulses, food, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, vegetables

51 responses to “it’s the key

  1. I can not tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. You have such a gift of descriptive narrative and always such well put together, wonderful recipes.

    • rachel

      I can’t tell you how glad I am that you (and others) enjoy the long, heat induced narratives of a woman who can’t open a door. Rx

  2. Maybe I will simply spend what’s left of this summer eating only what you post.

    • rachel

      Vic you are fast becoming my most loyal maker, maybe I should formally present you as my co-tester. It is still steaming here (and my lock is still jammed although I can remember where I live today) hope you are faring better Rx

  3. I feel I shouldn’t, because it clearly wasn’t any fun, but I simply adore your first paragraph. Hope you don’t mind. Okay, back to read the rest…

  4. Your prose is an absolute dream.

    • rachel

      I almost didn’t post this post, knowing it was a bit of heat-induced rant – now I am (almost) glad I did. thank you v much indeed Rx

  5. An applause that you manage to open the door, seems like it really was the heat that caused the key and the lock to act up. And, while the dish is supposedly the highlight of this post, I loved the image of luca sprawled all over the floor. so absolutely cute.

    • rachel

      Looking back it was – in fact – funny, cute even. At the time however it was a nightmare (I didn’t mention the twobags of shopping and childs bike.) Thank you, always, for reading.

  6. mark mallindine

    Very funny as usual. And much appreciated.

    • rachel

      Again I am every so relieved people thought my inept and rather tedious key saga was amusing as opposed to ridiculous. Thank you mark

  7. Just think of the resistance to germs that Luca is building up! That’s got to be good!

    • rachel

      I was thinking the same thing (my the sweat poured down my face, cheeks burned, ears felt like they were going to perforate with the inane running commentary)

  8. Graham Jepson.

    Google “lock scrubbing”. It used to be knowledge that could only be gained by virtue of a mis-spent youth but nowadays it is available to one and all. It works well on worn locks and if you manage to pull it off, the guys in the bar will be in awe of you forever.
    When I make your bean dish I will try to take your advice and leave it for a day. I do like the idea of serving it with ricotta.

    (As you finished where you started, I imagine that, like me, you had a not-so-secret smile.)

    • rachel

      I am now determined to master the art of lock scrubbing. I am going to give myself a year. Then one day next summer, when the lock plays up I will show the locals how it is done. I dream.
      Great with ricotta but even better with roast beef (rare) and a spoonful of horseradish.

  9. laura

    How do you manage to outdo yourself! I felt as if I were right there with you every sweat-filled step of the way; reading this post was a 3-D experience. And I could just see and hear the comments of the “by-sitters”.
    I love this dish though I’ve never added the basil – sounds like such a good idea. Up here the beans are called “mangiatutto” (though they are not really anything like what we know as “mangetout”).

    • rachel

      Aha, you are seriously loyal as this was a bit of a inane heat induced one. The by sitter are driving me mad, last night they started on my sons clothing. I think the only way is to join them though. Rxx

  10. Rachel, you crack me up. Licking the ground…Luca!!!!!!! Oh well, kids eat a pound of dirt a week and they survive. But the bean dish brought me back to thinking about a favorite dish I asked my mother to make me on my birthdays: Pink beans over rice. It was a mixture of pink beans, a ham hock, onions, carrots, celery, tomato sauce and spices and was cooked for hours to delicious perfection. Definitely better day two and three…..

    • rachel

      Toni – ha, I think you know about little boys licking the floor and eating dirt. i am told this is normal…it is just all so grubby. I love the sound of those beans – will you please make it for me one day. Orvieto trip planned just as soon as the heat subsides a little baci to youx

  11. Lauren

    I feel you Rachel, I got the umm lady is that your child drinking out of the dog bowl? And a random pad im my backpack saved me from 600ml of water down my back so never underestimate the importance of a random sanitary product! I look forward to spring for the first green beans!

  12. Christine

    So it’s only going to wait a few hours and I only have regular string beans as opposed to the flat variety, but I’m definitely making this tonight to along with some pan roasted chicken that needs to be made tomorrow.

    Next time the old men get on you about Luca you can rest assured that your son with his British stock will never fall ill to “l’aria” as was the fear of all my Italian relatives. The dirt is good for his immune system!

    • rachel

      Hi Christine, hope your beans were a success. I have decided to chant anti corpi from now on, especially when my greek chorus of oldies start with the signora tuo figlio sta…..

  13. Yikes. I can remember some of those days. Love the photo of Luca and the tantalizing food, of course.

  14. As always I enjoy reading your stories about your life as much as I devour your recipes.

  15. Thank you, again, for your beautiful writing. I enjoy every word. The photos are lovely. The stories you share about Luca are sweet and funny and endearing. Though you must have been exhausted after that trying experience. Now, on the recipe, I have just received two large bags of green beans from my dear friend’s garden. I am so excited to try another one of your dishes.

    • rachel

      I imagine – being a mum of nine – you have many such stories. Or maybe not, which is maybe why you are a mum of nine. Hooray for gifts of beans and I hope you do try this recipe, it is a simple but tasty one. R

  16. Love that little hand making an appearance in that last photo … My friend Lena, who is Greek, made a similar dish when I visited her in upstate New York this May, and it was wonderful. Now, lucky for me, I have a recipe to recreate it for myself. Peaches + honey after for sure.

    • rachel

      A sticky little hand. I too ate something very similar in greece years back, I think it might even have had olives in it. It is beautifully simple to make, hope you try R

  17. That poor migratory contact lens headed toward your chin (and not a hand to stop it!)… Lucca licking the floor… ha ha ha! It’s all great. I did the same thing with an armload of groceries and a gray Prius, nearly breaking the key in the lock of another person’s car before realizing that ALMOST ALL Priae are gray and mine was in the parking space next to the car whose door I trying to force. The recipe sounds great. I hope it’s as good as that slow-cooked zucchini. Ken

    • rachel

      I have also tried to open the wrong car…on more than one occasion, the most notable of which was not only the wrong car, but the wrong colour car with someone inside dozing in the passenger seat. I think it is (as good as he zucchini that is) XR

  18. Carolle

    Ha, I think we all have a ‘blackholebag’ I’ve just treated myself to a mini Kipling bag that i found on amazon for less than half price – I can’t resist a bargain whether I need it or not! You can get your keys, phone, money & a lippie in the bag but depending how important the sheep is to Luca you might have to stick with your blackhole. Peaches & ricotta sound wonderful.

    • rachel

      A mini kipling bag, I am intrigued (will google). I did try the smaller bag thing but the protests for sheep (and cows and cars and balls) were too great so it was back to the blackhole.

  19. I’ve followed your blog for a while, but honestly this post especially was hysterical, sweet, and utterly lovely. I love the thought of stew in the summertime, especially if there is some lovely air conditioning to retreat to while it’s being eaten. Thanks for sharing!

    • rachel

      Hi Sarah-E, I am happy you enjoy reading, especially this, the heat induced rant of an inept mother and door opener. We don’t have conditioning but a breeze through the flat from the balcony did the trick. Thank you for taking the time to comment

  20. i have had my (metaphorical) doormat stolen more than once. but rarely had the good sense to send it up so brilliantly.

    also, we’ll be eating these beans this week.

    also, these peaches.

    thanks in advance for both.

  21. It’s quite possible that I look forward to the summer bean season as much as I do tomatoes, simply to have to the pleasure of preparing this same dish. It’s often my dinner, or lunch, and has made appearances at the breakfast table, warmed, and topped with a slow-fried egg.

    “Your son is chewing on a cigarette butt.” Heeeee.

  22. Pingback: a bit shallow | rachel eats

  23. Amy

    Hi rachel, know I’m really late to the game, but I’ve been catching up on your blog and this post was especially so nice to read. I would feel a little guilty getting so much happiness from reading about your discomfort, but I think it’s solidarity more than anything else: I’ve recently moved to Paris and it took me just about 12 minutes to open the front door of my apartment yesterday. I did not, however, have a toddler or tempting cigarette butts around me. So I think you win.

    Have loved catching up and seeing what you’ve been eating, as always.

  24. Lynn D.

    Somehow I overlooked this post when it first appeared, but coincidentally made Aunt Enza’s overstewed green beans, a Faith Willinger recipe, last night. I used my own over large flat green beans, tomatoes and basil and a friend’s home grown onion. Leftover today with fresh albacore tuna, it was ambrosia

  25. Thanks for a delicious recipe Rachel. We ate this with homemade pesto tossed with pasta, crusty bread and a green salad. It was perfect Sunday night fare. I know it’s supposed to be all about blanching and crunchy greens but I don’t think there’s anything better than slow cooked beans!

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