bean eaters

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There used to be a pizzeria on Via Luca della Robbia whose sign said simply that, Pizzeria. However everyone called it il Toscano, the Tuscan, after the owner, whose name Fecini was engraved for the observant just above the door. In the mid 90’s Il Toscano was a regular haunt for Vincenzo and the rest of his misfit band as they rented a dungeon like rehearsal studio nearby. I’m told the pizzas, cooked in a wood oven, were good. Better though, were the specials that Il Toscano would reel off in such an uncompromising manner that not to order one was near impossible, even for a group of cocksure Romans, Sicilians and Calabrians. The tomatoes filled with rice were a favourite, as was the lasagna, but most beloved were the fagioli, or white cannellini beans, cooked for hours on end in a pot-bellied terra-cotta coccio (pot) in the pizza oven. The beans, fat and tender were served on a small white plate ready to be piled on bruschetta, or in a round terracotta bowl topped with a sausage.

When I arrived in Rome in 2005 Il Toscano had just closed, a fact I was in no danger of forgetting as every time we passed Vincenzo would go on about beans and how only Tuscans – known affectionately as mangia fagioli or bean eaters – knew how to cook them. Then a few years later, after a hasty kerfuffle of work, the Pizzeria reopened with a stark refit and new name; Bean, which suggested there would be cannellini.  There were, only without the brusque Tuscan, his wife, his oven and bean wisdom, the beans served were ordinary and sad. We weren’t the only ones to think so, Bean closed not that long after. Years later, my friend Laura who runs the spice shop and who used to take a bowl over to collect some beans from Il Toscano for her lunch, told me the tale. After 50 years of pizzas and convincing customers to eat beans,  il Toscano, suffering ill-health, was convinced by his family to retire. A few years later he was convinced again, this time to rent the neglected pizzeria out to the family that owns the expensive shoe shop nearby. The new owners had ideas as fancy as their Gucci and Prada shoes, but turned out to have absolutely no idea about how cook pizza or beans. ‘They even ripped out his beautiful oven‘ Laura told me while weighing out two etti of hazelnuts. ‘Idioti.’

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While all this convincing was taking place, we had begun visiting a part of southern Tuscany called Maremma for a few days each autumn. The plan was always the same; hot, sulfurous smelling springs, long walks and lunch at ordinary but good places in which we could eat acquacotta (a vegetable soup served over toasted bead and crowned with an egg) Pici all’agliata (fat hand rolled pasta with garlic and tomato sauce) and plate after plate of white beans.

Now I can understand why you might be underwhelmed at the thought of plate after plate of cannellini, after all they are only beans. However Tuscans have a way of preparing white beans that is nothing short of masterful; cooking them slowly, usually in terracotta, until their skins are imperceptible and their flesh tender but dense with an almost buttery texture. If you are lucky – as we were at La cantina in Scansano – you might come across a place that still cooks beans al fiasco, in a flask. A way that echoes the traditional habit of cooking fagioli in an old Chianti bottle; the beans dropped one by one through the narrow neck, followed by unpeeled garlic, sage leaves and olive oil before the bottle is plugged with a bit of cloth and then cooked through the night in the dying embers of the fire. Beans cooked this way sum up the Italian genius for making the simplest things simply delicious and the reason I’ll take beans, bread, local cheese and local wine over a fancy meal almost every time.

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Back from this years trip to Tuscany I decided I should at least try and cook beans like a Tuscan. So I called by Laura’s shop to buy a half kilo and asked her if she thought I could cook them without soaking. ‘Yes‘, was her reply ‘Just go slowly’. So I did, half a kilo of un-soaked beans, a good dose of extra virgin olive oil, some water, unpeeled garlic and sage in a pan at the sort of simmer that has you peering under the pan for fear the flame has gone out, for nearly four hours. While the beans simmered and the scent of garlic sage swirled around the flat, I cleaned the bathroom, folded three lots of washing, answered 27 E mails and then, most importantly, built a dinosaur out of toilet rolls.

The cooked beans, seemingly drunk on oil and water, were plump, extremely tasty and the nicest beans I have ever cooked. As a nod to the holiday and il Toscano we ate the beans with toasted bread and a glass of red for lunch. That night I re-heated another couple of ladelfuls which I topped with a sausage, Vincenzo with a lacy edged fried egg, which was, in retrospect, a little over enthusiastic, even for bean eaters like us. Good though.

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A pan of white beans to be eaten in various ways

It is not often practical or possible to cook beans for 4 hours, which is where soaking comes in; eight hours soaking in cold water and white beans will cook in about an hour. They won’t have the sultry tenderness of slow cooked beans, but they will still be delicious and another thing entirely from those tipped out of cans. Either way, a half kilo of beans yields eight portions, which for us, two adults and a little boy, means three meals. I have made some suggestions below. Try and avoid buying beans that are more than a year old by checking the harvest date. I season my beans once they are cooked. Lastly, what I understand to be the cardinal rule of cooking beans; never boil them! Bring the pan to a shuddering simmer slowly and then cook them at the lowest possible temp, so that the water barely simmers.

  • 500 g decent quality cannellini beans
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a sprig of sage leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Without soaking

I am conscious about proposing this method of cooking as I am sure I will get feedback about the need to soak (something about toxins that clearly Tuscans are immune to) flatulence and uneconomic cooking methods, However if you would like to try, put half a kilo of cannellini beans in a heavy based pan or terra-cotta pot, cover the beans with cold water, add a good glug of olive oil, two unpeeled cloves of garlic and a spring of sage and bring the pan slowly to the gentlest boil and then reduce to a barely perceptible simmer for 3 – 4 hours. Keep an eye on the water level and top it up if necessary – the water should come at least a cm above the beans until nearly the very end. The beans are ready when they are fat and tender but still holding their shape and virtually all the liquid has been absorbed. Season with salt and stir.

With soaking

Soak the beans in plenty of cold water for at 8 hours. Drain and rinse the beans, put them in a thick bottomed pan or terra-cotta pot along with the unpeeled garlic and sage and cover with cold water (it should come about 3 cm above the beans). Over a low flame, bring the pan to a simmer – skimming away any white froth – and continue cooking until the beans are tender, which will take anything from 1 – 1 /2 hours depending on the age, size and quality of the beans. Keep tasting, the beans should be tender and their skins soft but still hold their shape. Turn off the heat, season with salt, and let the beans cool in the cooking liquid.

Unless you are going to eat all the beans at once, keep the pan in the fridge, removing the beans with a slotted spoon and the broth with a ladle. Be careful not to touch the liquid with your hands as they will not keep as well.

To serve with bread or toast as starter or small meal or as a side dish

Using a slotted spoon, lift the beans you need into a small pan along with enough broth to moisten the beans. Re-heat gently over a low flame. Serve dressed with coarse salt and extra virgin olive oil.

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White beans with tuna, red onion and black olives.

Mixed some drained beans with some drained tuna (the sort conserved under olive oil is best), a little finely chopped parsley, a small red onion (if you find onion too strong, try soaking it in an inch of water with a few drops of red wine vinegar for 5 mins then draining) and a some black olives. Dress with good salt and best extra virgin, toss and serve.

White beans with garlic, sage and sausages

Warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan, add a peeled, gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and a few sage leaves and fry very gently until fragrant. Using a slotted spoon add some beans and the broth clinging to them and turn them until glistening with oil – if you like you can mash a few with the back of the spoon to make the texture creamier. Season with salt and then serve with grilled or pan-fried sausages.

White beans with tomatoes.

In a frying pan warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and fry gently until fragrant. Add three or four, peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until they are soft and a bit saucy. Using a slotted spoon, add as many white beans as you think fit, stir and cook until the beans are warmed through. Add salt and a little more oil for good measure. Eat with toasted garlic rubbed bread, or topped with a poached egg.

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80 Comments

Filed under Beans and pulses, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, winter recipes

80 responses to “bean eaters

  1. Love this! This is hands down one of my favourite things to cook and one of the most useful pots of food to have in the kitchen, as you demonstrate so very well! I’ve never done the non-soaking method, though, and neither do my Tuscan in-laws who are always adamant about the soaking! I do want to attempt the fiasco method though in the name of research – soon!😉

    • rachel

      Tuscans (it seems) have very strong feelings about soaking/non soaking. I have the name of two places that cook in the bottle still….lets plan xox.

  2. I couldn’t resist, as seeing this title brought back immediately this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (of Chicago):
    “The Bean Eaters”
    They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
    Dinner is a casual affair.
    Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
    Tin flatware.

    Two who are Mostly Good.
    Two who have lived their day,
    But keep on putting on their clothes
    And putting things away.

    And remembering . . .
    Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
    As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
    is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
    tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

  3. Great. Though I do wonder, if you cook beans in a bottle, don’t they swell up and become really difficult to then get out of the bottle? Oh, and did you see this thing Behr posted recently: http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-dont-soak-dried-beans-20140911-story.html#page=1

    • rachel

      I’m told you just have to give the bottle a good thwack – you know like ketchup – and out they come. I have names of places we can find beans in bottles. oh and thanks for the D, miss you x

  4. Such a great dish, and one I don’t do anything like as often as I should, as getting my cooker to maintain a next-to-no flame is well nigh impossible. I’m thinking maybe I should experiment with a slow cooker. Might that work, do you know?

    • rachel

      I bet it would work with a slow cooker, after all that is the point. If you try, please let me know Rx

      • I cook beans only in my slow cooker because it works so well! I never soak them. A couple hours on low, depending on the age of the beans. They are always wonderful. I never buy canned beans any more.

      • Meg in Vermong

        Yes, the slow cooker is perfect! I have a giant old one and give un-soaked beans 4-6 hours, sometimes even more, on low (depending on whether or not they have been soaked). And it is the only way we make lentil soup now; the beans come out velvety and wonderful. looking forward to giant pots of white beans. . . . soon. Tuna and olives sounds wonderful; I only wish we could get good olive-oil-conserved tuna here in Vermont.

  5. assolutamente da provare il metodo lento! grazie per questo “racconto” che ho bevuto d’un sorso!

  6. My mouth is watering for a fiasco of beans. I have cascades of borlottis happily growing in our extended summer heat this year. Currently cooking, drying for storing and seed saving for next year. Soon, soon I’m going to move on to your cannellini beans. x

    • rachel

      Borlotti with olive oil and salt are gloriously good, even more so if you have grown them yourself. I look forward to seeing your allotment one day x

  7. minchilli

    Now I wish I had cooked up a big pot of beans yesterday, so that I they would be waiting for me at lunch time.
    Have you ever been to Nino’s in Rome? They still cook their beans in a glass flask, and make a mean soup.

  8. Love beans, and being vegetarians, they are a staple in our diet. Would love to give the no soaking recipe a go and just like Margaret21 I was wondering if using a slow cooker would work well. Have you ever tried this?

  9. Lovely and I love your orange pot. And I have memories of beans and tuna and red onion and beans and toms. Xx

    • rachel

      My orange pot is a bit sad after I boiled some sauce until it was soldered i to the bottom the other days…but yes I love it too. Hope you are well? xox

  10. I am definitely a bean eater and all of your variations sound heavenly. Four hours for cooking unsoaked beans sounds like a perfect compromise especially on a dreary day like today when I would really love some beans but hadn’t thought to soak them the night before. Thanks for the inspiration to get my orange dutch oven out of hiding and on the stove today!

    • rachel

      They are a trusty quartet, I am particularly fond of beans and tomatoes. As a bean eater, did you see the poem my friend jamie posted as the second comment, I think you will like it too x

  11. Carolle

    Great to see you Rachel, I love all pulses but particularly cannelllini beans, especially in tomato sauce. I’ve eaten them all over Tuscany but the absolute best was in a small Tuscan restaurant just outside Turin. However, I have great problems replicating them at home it doesn’t seem to matter what I do, how long or short I cook them for the beans turn out hardish not soft and velvety, I’m going to follow your instructions and hope that before long I’ll be eating a gorgeous dish alla Rachel!

    • rachel

      I know the feeling and I hard much the same experience for years, until I discovered the no boil guidelines…..it really does make all the difference with both soaked and unsoaked beans, bring the pan to a gentle simmer and then leave it there…..Rx

  12. I love beans, I love them when they are made well, and they are soaked in oil and plump and garlicky. They give me even more satisfaction than lentils, and now you have convinced me to dare cooking them without soaking, perhaps on a grey Sunday when hours go slowly, and are best spent in the kitchen. x

    • rachel

      Since writing this I have had a couple of mails telling me i must soak. But I have tried three times now, unasked, long and slow (no boil) and they are beauties. Laura who owns the shop that sells them to me say it is important the beans are not too old. Do let me know if you try xox

  13. Michael

    Pleased to see you back! I suppose the book has been more demanding than your family and hope it’s now taking less of your time. Disappointed that you haven’t had a chance to talk about the fresh beans that sadly appear, only to disappear in the blink of an eye at the end of summer. They are jealously guarded by the women at the farmers markets here in Galicia. We are lucky enough to have three or four varieties. I never saw fresh beans in the UK so had to search my Mediterranean cook books for advice. Simplicity itself, with sage and garlic and once brought to the boil, simmered gently for about 20 minutes or until buttery. Drained and dressed with the best olive oil and whatever else you fancy, it is food for the Gods!

    • rachel

      Hi Micheal, I agree, I am sorry I didn’t talk about fresh beans too, they are a fleeting joy, that said I can only find cannellini and borlotti here in Testaccio. I saw quite a lot of borlotti in Laondon this year and my mum is growing them in Dorset. Best R

  14. We’ve eaten our fair share of beans over the years, even feeling that we’re decent at cooking a few varieties, but still the best bean dish by some distance were the cannellini at Coco Lezzone in Florence. Sagey, garlicky and with that density but incredible silkiness you describe. We’re tried and failed numerous times to recreate them using the presoak method, but may give it one more crack next time we have four hours at our disposal. With Paolo and Emiliana both now on the hoof, that may be a while away, however… Hope you’re well!

    • rachel

      I have had those beans at Coco Lezzone (well not those exact beans, they were your beans, I had another plateful). Of course you are four now, four, my mind boggles as I wrestle my single, small, cheeky three year old into his superman outfit. all best always xoxox

  15. One of my favorite things about following you on Instagram is seeing these posts shape up – I had wondered about those beans. They looked so delicious. And now I want beans.

  16. Hi Rachel, well, I boil my beans to death, my husband calls my soup pot the cauldron. Will definitely try your method, sounds wonderful.

  17. Aplauso Rachel!! I’ve never liked beans…(to be honest, never cooked any beans so maybe my judgment is too partial to be true). But i read your post from beginning to end, (while googling the street on which Pizzeria was on), remembing my beloved Rome. I read all the way to beans with tomato sauce. And that means I’m ready to try making beans one day. Let’s say when i have 4 hours to spare and can let the beans cook without soaking.

    baci,
    felicia

  18. Making a pot of beans for the week is always a good idea in my book. So many uses and SO much better than the canned variety. Might have to try the beans on toast this week…

  19. laura

    Next time you get up this way, I shall try to get you some “schiaccioni” (http://fagiolorossodilucca.wordpress.com/fagioli-friends/schiaccione-di-pietrasanta/) and also take you to the wonderful civaiolo in my neighborhood.
    Wonderful to be able to read your descriptions and explanations again!

  20. Hilary

    as one who virtually never thinks of soaking beans the day before I need them, I am especially excited by this post! Woop – 4 hours I can cope with!! Just a clarification – you say they should have 1cm of water covering them until the very end, but that they should have absorbed most of the water – do you mean until nearly the end? Also, I guess you mean 1 – 1 1/2 hours.
    Lovely to see a post from you – hope you are all well. xxh

  21. Graham Jepson.

    A nice story and great stuff Rachel!
    As I understand it, there are different qualities of dried beans. Here in South Africa, also in Brazil, lots of them are broken so it is necessary to sort through them one by one, otherwise the end result is very mushy.
    We do have a year-round supply of fresh beans that are similar to cranberry beans. I always use them in place of dried beans and simmer them in water with lemon juice added which maintains their light creamy colour. But your Tuscan method has immediate, intuitive appeal and I shall be giving it a go very soon.
    You say: “… I’ll take beans, bread, local cheese and local wine over a fancy meal almost every time.” I could not agree more.

    Best wishes – Graham.

    • rachel

      You are very lucky to have year round supply of fresh beans…I am envious. Interesting to hear about the beans being broken as yes I suppose that would mean things got mushy, which I suppose it fine for soups and stews. Rx

  22. Hello Rachel, with the risk of ‘cursing in the church’, what about pressure cookers?
    It is no secret that they speed up the process of cooking unsoaked beans considerably, but which effect does this have on the flavour?

    • rachel

      HI J, I don’t have one, But I am sure it would work if you can set the temp low enough….is that possible?

      • Well, pressure cookers are supposed to raise the temp above 100C to raise the cooking point of liquids and speed up the cooking process. Probably not what you are looking for in this recipe…

      • rachel

        that is a very good point (I know almost nothing about pressure cooking.) Several people have tried though, and succeeded…..clearly I need to try for myself. thanks for comment – R

  23. LoL about the toilet paper roll dinosaur.
    Shall try the slow cooking version using one of my trusted cast iron pans in the oven (where I can set the temperature just below boiling point). This out to turn out nicely and we love beans too.

  24. Natasha

    I always cook black beans with no soaking and they are amazing. Funny, because I was brought up to believe that soaking made beans more tender. Not true in my experience as a cook!

    • rachel

      Hi N, and you are the third person to mention black beans and no soaking. I have received a few queries, but all i know is that I have cooked unsoaked cannellini beans three times now as described above and they have been delicious and tender.

  25. Can’t wait to try this method and the three recipes, especially the tuna and olives! Beautiful pictures, as always. Glad to see you in this space, and hoping the book is going well!

  26. Susan

    Great post Rachel, it’s funny because I just started getting into cooking dried beans and the cannellinis were just amazing…cannot be compared to canned beans. Thanks for all of the tips, can’t wait to cook some over the weekend now. Cheers!

  27. Margit Van Schaick

    So nice to see you back, and with such a down-to-earth, succulent method for cooking beans! I love to have them on hand for impromptu little meals throughout the week. Your writing adds such delight to even the simplest food. Also love the thrifty aspect.

  28. So lovely – and perhaps the answer to my “why haven’t my soaked beans tasted THAT ethereal?” — unsoaked and slow-cooked… might be the way to go! Question, what if one slow-cooks them in a slow-cooker?? As in come home after a day at the office and the beans are done? Asking for a friend, of course!🙂

  29. Loved everything about this post! When I lived in Rome, I loved the food there, but Tuscan food was something I adored. The white beans we had there were fantastic.

  30. I love this post – and the fact that you live in an appartamento which is probably tiny (as they mostly are in Italy), with a simple kitchen and can none-the-less create something so perfect with perfect photos to match. So often we think we need more but we probably need less

    • rachel

      I do have a small kitchen, which drives me mad most days, but yes, it is good to be reminded that we don’t need fancy things, or special ingredients to make something good to eat. Rx

  31. This looks amazing! I shouldn’t be looking at food blogs at midnight…

  32. There few foods as soul-satisfyingly unctuous as properly cooked beans. We’re adherents of the slow-and-low-is-the-way-to-go approach. With a drizzle of great olive oil, it just doesn’t get any better. Our problem is finding dated beans. Even vendors who ought to know better look at you askance when you ask if a batch or brand of dried beans is from this past year’s harvest. “Who cares–they’re dried, aren’t they?” is the usual response. Lovely post. Ken

    • rachel

      We have the same problem here……I am sure some beans are years old. I have heard great things about rancho gordo beans, do you know them? x

      • I have prepared and eaten a lot of Rancho Gordo beans. By and large they’re pretty good, although not perfect. They don’t–to my knowledge–guarantee the age of any packaged beans; there’s no date of harvest listed. A recent experience with their Gran Corona beans, giant white runner beans, what the Greeks call *gigandes* was wonderful (for the record, RG says their Gran Coronas are grown in Poland). The beans were enormous, perfectly shaped, with a rich buttery texture and flavor (slow, stovetop method). In contrast, my last two batches of RG Cannelloni beans were so underwhelming I decided to stop buying them. I recently saw the RG might also stop growing them. What I don’t understand is why purveyors of ostensibly high-end beans don’t start harvest-dating their products. I, for one, would pay a premium for that assurance. To be fair, RG does offer to refund the purchase price to unsatisfied customers, but I can’t be bothered to go through that hassle–I’d rather avoid it in the first place. Ken

  33. France

    Dear Rachel,
    What about using a slow cooker for the beans ? As it allows to cook for many hours at a low temperature, I suppose it would achieve the same tenderness as using the stove ?

    • rachel

      Hi Frances, I have never tried, but I assume it would work well. Lots of people have mention this and I would love to confirm our suspicions…….please let me know if you try. All best R

    • Deborah

      I’m glad I read this since I had the same question re: slow cooker–it seems the perfect device for beans and I just got one for this reason. We don’t get great beans in Hawaii so I ordered from Ranch Gordo–first time, and I see the next email is about them too. It pays to wait to reply, I guess! haha
      I wish us both success with our slow cookers!
      Aloha,
      Deb

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  35. The folks at Rancho Gordo, who cultivate and purvey all manner of heirloom beans do not recommend the soak, so I quit soaking. I begin with a saute of onions and garlic, sometimes peppers, add beans then water and simmer away. wonderful results. Love seeing all this bean commentary!

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  37. Oh, Rachel, I adore your words. You’re one of my favourite food, life writers. I am beyond excited for this bean instruction. Have been drooling over your instagram pics of beans for far too long. I am fascinated to see how the no soak method goes. I’m up for the gassy challenge if it creates a divine meal. Hey, it will simply be my solo-night-in dinner. Too much info, I know, but I am just so in love with this post I find myself oversharing. Thanks x

    • rachel

      Hi Heidi and what a lovely message to meet on a damp wednesday in Rome – thank you very much and I am so glad to have met you and continue to meet you on instagram each day. Love and warm wishes R x ps – try the beans x

  38. Christine

    Slow-cooked without a soak some Rancho Gordo beans- heirloom beans grown in California, a treat for my birthday recently- and they are spectacular. Pulled out a smoked ham hock and made a delicious soup with half of them, now to try a couple of your ideas later in the week!

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