One of the joys of my ancestral cuisine is often to be found in the sheer simplicity of certain timeless recipes. My ancestors routinely starved throughout their lives as most were farming people who relied on the vagaries of the seasons for their very existence. The routine starvation is what probably accounts for the Thalassaemia (“Mediterranean anaemia”) we inherited from our ancestors. A very important element in my cuisine to this day is the mostly overlooked bean. I think beans are treated as a “Z” grade food in this day and age which is replete with so much abundance, value added pre-prepared foods and the overly generous attention being paid to foods per se, judging by the plethora of cooking “competition” programmes on television. Beans are one of the oldest forms of protein and have been grown since the year dot. I think beans most probably saved my ancestors’ lives during hard times, alongside that other mainstay of their cuisine: marvellous polenta. Known as “pulmentum” during the Roman empire, this basic corn grit style porridge has sustained people for a very long time indeed; though during Roman times, buckwheat was the element in polenta. My late mother always told me that polenta probably saved their lives during the war and that her family considered themselves fortunate indeed if they were able to source polenta to put on the table. Some freshly cooked polenta was poured onto a wooden board at table for family members to slice through with a wire and enjoy. Oftentimes, there was precious little else to add to polenta. My mother always referred to polenta as “grano Turko”, (Turkish grain) as maize was imported via Venice from the Ottoman empire around the fifteenth century. Polenta was increasingly made with crushed maize during this time. Where my mother came from, names and practices were carried down from generation to generation over the centuries. My parents always humorously referred to Florentine people as “mangia faggioli” – the bean eaters though I would say our family would have come a close second in the bean eating stakes. A Florentine friend I had at university years ago returned the culinary compliment and said that where my parents came from, the people were generally referred to as “polentoni” – polenta people.
Beans still hold a special place in my cuisine today. Beans in various dishes appeared on our family table for many years. Beans were always added to the many salads we ate, a variety of minestras (“minestrone”) stews and even pickled and used as a spread on bread. I think the simplest recipes from my ancestors are my all time favourites. Most of the recipes I still cook are not available commercially but to me, they are the star performers of what constitutes my culinary life at home. My cuisine defines my identity. To this day when creating a salad, I never start with the usual adjuncts such as lettuce. I will always place a quantity of beans in the salad bowl and work up from there.
(Borlotti beans I grew this summer’s past. Always an essential plant in my abundant vegetable garden. I freeze these for use throughout the year. You can buy dry borlotti beans and use these instead; after soaking and cooking.)
Cannellini bean spread is very simple to make and tastes delicious as the flavours develop over a couple of days; if the spread lasts so long that is. A delicious paste to eat smeared on some ciabatta bread that has been lightly toasted or with crackers too. Another way to enjoy this delicious concoction is to use it as a spread on some flat bread, pile on dressed salad greens and home grown sliced tomatoes and roll the lot up into a quick and easy and very healthy meal. A negotiable spread that is full of the right type of fibre. The beauty about this delicious spread is that the flavour improves with keeping. Do not store this spread for more than a few days.
I start off with a base of white cannellini beans. People are often loathe to buy dry beans and lentils; thinking they are too “complicated” to prepare and the process takes too long. This bean/pea/pulse/lentil fear is often based on ignorance. There are two methods of preparing the beans for this recipe. The first method is fantastic if you remember to soak two cups of beans in water overnight. I am rather impetuous with cooking at times so the second method is quick and easy and works for me. My dry goods pantry is always stocked with a variety of dried beans and lentils, dried fruit and nuts and pasta varieties. I always believe if I have a good stock of dried beans/lentils/pulses on hand, I can face any hardship that comes our way. This is the feeling that a well stocked pantry and preserves larder gives me and has for countless generations of women. If you have dried goods in your pantry, you will never go without.
Take two cups of dried cannellini beans and drop them into a nice big pot. Check over for any broken or dark beans and discard. Cover with approximately 1 litre of cold water. Bring the water to the boil and boil the beans uncovered for approximately 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and pop the lid on. Set the kitchen timer for one hour. This second method of the two minute cook/one hour soak is the equivalent of soaking the beans overnight.
Regardless whether you have soaked the beans overnight or carried out the quick method, the final cooking stage is the same. At the end of the hot soaking time, take off the lid and add another half litre of boiling water and turn on the heat. Leave the lid off as the beans have a habit of foaming up and over onto the hob. The beans will have absorbed some of the water during the sitting time. Gently boil the beans until they are cooked. The cooking time can vary according to the age of the beans. I reckon a good 30 to 40 minutes might be a good guide. Pick out a bean and taste it. There should not be any hard bits in the bean. The bean should be soft but not broken up. If you can’t taste any gritty pieces in the bean, it is sufficiently cooked. Drain off, saving approximately 1/4 cup of bean water.
During the time the beans are cooking, I peel and cut up two red onions into small pieces. Drop the onion into a pan with a generous slurp of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of white balsamic glaze and gently saute the onions for around 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should caramelise during this time which will really bring out their sweetness. Aim for a rich golden colour in the onions with definitely no burnt bits. Caramelisation must be coaxed out of the onion for the best flavour. This paste, after all, is a tasty combination of sweet, sour and salty.
Drain off the beans and drop them into a food processor. Add one cup of chopped up semi dried tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, a few cornichons, the caramelised onions and a small bunch of Italian flat leafed parsley. Add around 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup bean water (warm water if you forgot to capture some of the cooking water) and 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar. Blend the lot until all the ingredients are finely chopped up and amalgamated into a paste. If you are worried about the amount of vinegar, try two tablespoons and adjust according to your taste.
Taste the paste and adjust the seasonings to your liking. This is a negotiable paste and lends itself nicely to fine tuning, taste wise as the bland bean background flavour needs a certain gustatory kick, flavour wise.
Store in a covered container in the fridge. Enjoy this simple collation. This is a delicious spread to serve at your luncheon table when entertaining and lends itself nicely when accompanied by some salumi (cured meats) and cheeses on a lovely big platter. Don’t forget to add some extra cornichons on the platter for guests who appreciate that vinegary crunchiness. I’d personally include some blue vein cheese as part of such a collation. Just remember to serve up some good quality pasta dura (hard crust) bread or ciabatta with this delicious spread. This spread is also delicious when served with crackers. Consider putting some extra virgin olive oil at the table so guests can drizzle the oil over the bean spread. A meal around this bean paste would be beautifully rounded off with a platter of fresh fruit. There is no reason, after all, to guild the lilly. I have a particular fondness for adding a green pavement of slice gherkin on top of this addictive spread. The softness of the paste is a lovely counterpoint to the crunchy gherkins. Some of the best things to be had in this life are often the simplest.