I always keep a large supply of dried beans in the pantry. (There are a few tins of canned beans, too, but only for emergency use.)
Seeing an assortment of different kinds there is somehow reassuring. I want old-fashioned pinto beans and black beans, for starters, and it’s nice to stock a few types of heirloom beans, too, outrageously hued varieties like Scarlet Runner or Jacob’s Cattle.
I need white beans, too. All supermarkets carry navy and Great Northern beans, but there are lots of tastier options: gigandes, tarbais, hija, aurora. Go for the kidney-shaped cannellini bean or hefty corona beans, two particularly versatile types.
My new favorite heirloom white beans are the small, round Italian purgatory beans, fagioli del purgatorio, which have a tender, creamy texture. Purgatory beans have been cultivated in the Lazio region of Italy for centuries, ever since the first ones arrived from the New World. They are eaten year-round, but tradition calls for whole villages to gather on Ash Wednesday and eat the beans communally at long tables.
The custom is to cook purgatory beans quite simply, simmered with a few sage leaves, and eat them plain, with a sprinkling of salt and a generous spoonful of fruity olive oil. Actually, I would say that’s the perfect way to eat any good dried beans. From a purist’s point of view, why would they need anything else?
Still, white beans take well to embellishment and are welcome in any season. They make wonderful summertime salads, combined with red onions, a touch of anchovy, cherry tomatoes and a splash of red wine vinegar. I like to bake them with spicy fennel sausage and roasted peppers in autumn. In winter, all manner of white bean soups are consumed at our house on a regular basis.
Just now, with the arrival of spring, I still crave white beans, but in a fresh, lighter rendition. My plan was to make a vegetarian stew featuring purgatory beans, fennel and peas, showered with fresh herbs. Then came a snowstorm, and the recent spell of unseasonably warm days was just a memory piled under heaps of snow and ice.
In New York, it seemed like jumping the gun, but was satisfying nonetheless. Cooks in warmer climates might particularly relish it now, maybe even with an asparagus spear or two.
Recipe: White Bean Stew With Carrots, Fennel and Peas
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: About 2 1/2 hours
2 cups dried white beans (about 1 pound), picked over for debris and rinsed
1 medium onion, peeled and halved, stuck with 2 cloves
1 bay leaf
1 small sprig rosemary
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 large white onion, medium-diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 celery stalks, medium-diced (about 1 cup)
6 orange carrots, medium-diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 or 2 fennel bulbs, medium-diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon crushed fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 bunch small yellow carrots, peeled, and left whole or halved lengthwise (optional)
1 cup fresh peas (from 2 pounds in the pod, or use frozen)
3 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 serrano chili, seeds removed and finely chopped
4 large eggs, boiled 9 minutes, chilled in ice water, peeled and halved
1. Put beans in a heavy-bottomed pot along with clove-studded onion, bay leaf and rosemary. Add cold water to cover by about 2 inches, cover the pot, and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer, with lid ajar. Check beans occasionally and add water as necessary to keep liquid 1 inch above beans.
2. After 40 minutes, add 2 teaspoons salt, carefully stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid smashing beans. Continue cooking until beans are tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours total. (Some beans cook more quickly, so begin checking after 1 hour.) Let beans cool in cooking liquid. You may cook beans to this point several hours or up to a day in advance.
3. Heat olive oil in a wide deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add diced onions, celery, carrots and fennel, season generously with salt and pepper, then add fennel seed, red pepper flakes and garlic. Cook mixture until softened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally; lower heat if necessary to keep vegetables from browning. Set aside.
4. Meanwhile, if using yellow carrots, simmer them in a saucepan of well-salted water. When carrots are cooked through but firm, about 5 minutes, remove from water with a slotted spoon and spread on a platter to cool.
5. Simmer peas in a saucepan of well-salted water for about 2 minutes. (If you cooked yellow carrots, you can use the same saucepan and water to simmer peas.) Drain and add peas to diced vegetable mixture.
6. To assemble dish, return the skillet with the vegetables to the stove over medium high heat. Add drained white beans, reserving the bean cooking liquid. Cook, stirring, until heated through, about 5 minutes, gradually adding enough cooking liquid to keep mixture a bit soupy, 1 cup or so. Taste and adjust for salt. Add cooked yellow carrots, and let them heat through.
7. Transfer stew to a deep platter or wide serving bowl. Mix together parsley, mint, lemon zest and chili and sprinkle over the top. Garnish with halved eggs, lightly salted, and drizzle everything with 2 tablespoons tasty extra-virgin olive oil.
And to Drink ...
The savory, earthy flavors of white beans would go with both reds and whites, but the surrounding touches, including peas, carrots, fennel and eggs, suggest whites, especially if you are longing for spring. Sauvignon blancs and gruner veltliners are reflex choices and would be fine. But I might opt for something a little richer, like a pinot blanc from Alsace or Austria. A good, deep, aged Muscadet is not so easy to come by, but it would be delicious, as would a chardonnay or white Burgundy from St.-Aubin or Meursault. If you are still gripped by the cold, you may prefer a red. Try a cabernet franc from a Loire Valley appellation like Chinon or Saumur-Champigny, or maybe even a Chianti Classico.