I know, turning on the oven and making a huge pot of beans may not be what most of you are jumping up to do during the summer! But, maybe you have fresh sage, lemon thyme, and parsley growing in your garden. Maybe it is chilly and gray where you are. Maybe you live in Australia and are looking for a big, hot pot of beans to keep you warm this time of year. Or maybe, like me, you will turn on your stove and oven in 93-degree weather to end up with some flavorful, buttery-soft beans on your plate and in your fridge.
I’ve adapted this recipe from a lovely cookbook called Beans by Aliza Green. I adore this book. It is worldly yet unintimidating, and it shines the spotlight on one of my very favorite health foods. Aliza writes knowledgeably about everything from Idaho Pinto Bean Pie to Bahian Acarajé Fritters with Ajili Mojili Sauce. Even beany sweets, from Tunisian Chickpea Cookies to Viennese White Bean and Hazelnut Torte. She makes me want to come to her house for dinner to experience her culinary globe-trotting and tastes ranging from adventurous to down-home.
In the book, this dish is called Fagioli all’Ucceletto, or “Bird-Style Beans.” It is based on a Tuscan tradition of cooking wild game birds with olive oil, sage, and garlic. Aliza’s recipe includes fresh or canned tomatoes, which we have loved in the past. In this version though, I replaced them with lemons, shallots, and lemon thyme for a lighter, more summery take.
These beans are fairly simple and rustic, but you can easily make them more or less elaborate according to your tastes. My husband likes them just fine with only the sage, garlic, olive oil, and salt. I think there is room to experiment further with white wine, oregano or basil, capers, or maybe some sort of a pesto as a topping. I made a carrot-walnut-parsley pesto to stir in before serving, but it really wasn’t anything to write home about. In fact, most of that pesto is still in the fridge, and I don’t see it going anywhere soon. We preferred plain parsley and fresh lemon juice as accents.
I was unfussy and left the sage and garlic whole, the thyme still on its thin, non-woody stems, and the rinds of the lemon in large pieces. My husband and I don’t mind rustic touches like that when we scoop beans into our bowls.
If you are serving this to company or, say, your mother-in-law, you may want to take the time to chop the garlic, sage, and lemon rinds, and remove the thyme leaves from their stems (or tie them together so you can pull them out after cooking). I’ve made it both ways, and the dish may have a tiny bit more flavor when everything is chopped, but for ease of getting it in the oven I usually don’t get too meticulous about it.
You can use these beans as a side dish or main course, and serve them alone or on a bed of wilted greens or cooked grains. They might be particularly nice with farro, to keep the Tuscan theme going.
Lemony Beans with Garlic and Herbs
27 oz. (or about 1 and 3/4 pounds) dried cranberry beans, pink beans, borlotti, or large white beans
10 and 1/2 cups water (or half vegetable broth, half water)
large piece of kombu sea vegetable (optional- I hear it makes the beans easier to digest and adds savory flavor)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped shallots
14 cloves of garlic, peeled, chopped or left whole
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped or left whole
1/2 cup fresh lemon thyme, thick woody stems removed
3 and 1/2 tsp. salt
fresh parsley, chopped
fresh lemon slices to garnish and squeeze on top (optional)
pine nuts or walnuts (optional)
1. Look over your beans and remove any rocks, dirt, or spoiled beans. Put the rest in a big bowl, and cover them with several inches of fresh, cool water. Leave them at room temperature to soak overnight, or at least 6 hours. If your kitchen is hot and humid, drain the beans and change the water once during the soaking time to prevent fermentation. (Instead of soaking, you could also boil the dry beans for 5 minutes, remove them from heat, and let them soak in that cooking liquid for 1 hour.)
2. Drain and rinse the soaked beans. Put them, the kombu (if using), and the 10 and a 1/2 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a strong boil. If foam forms on the surface of the liquid, skim it off and discard. Turn the heat down to a steady simmer, and let the beans cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until they are about half-done. Take them off the heat.
3. Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to remove the rinds from the lemons. Try to avoid the white pithy layer below the rinds because it is bitter. Cut the naked lemons in half, and set them and the rinds to the side.
4. When the beans have been simmering for about 20 minutes, preheat your oven to 325. Make sure the racks are in the lower third of the oven, so your Dutch oven will fit inside.
5. Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add sage, garlic, and shallots, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the garlic looks golden. Pour the beans and their cooking liquid into the Dutch oven. Add the salt, lemon rinds, and lemon thyme. Squeeze in the juice from all four lemon halves you peeled.
6. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and transfer the whole pot to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then stir carefully and gently. Re-cover and bake for 30 more minutes, or until the beans are quite tender but still juicy and holding their shapes. Usually our beans are perfectly cooked after this amount of time- incredibly soft but not falling apart.
7. Remove from the oven. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley, pine nuts, and/or walnuts before serving, and garnish with twisted slices of lemon that can be squeezed on top if desired.
Make a big pot of beans, enough for 10-12 as a side dish, at least 8 as a vegetarian main course.