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
- 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.