I’ve had a thing for beans ever since I was an impoverished graduate student in Wisconsin, where my diet largely consisted of fish I’d caught, various grains, goat necks, chicken drumsticks, ground pork and lots and lots of beans.
But it’s always the same story, isn’t it? You love the dry bean, too, right, but you left the faithful legume once you began earning enough money to buy more meat. Who needs you, bean, when I can afford steak or salmon? I was guilty of this, as has been much of the rest of Western Civilization. Doubt me? Read my colleague Ken Albala’s Beans: A History then.
I recently read Ken’s book and wrote about it for the Stockton Record, which got me thinking about beans again. How could I have abandoned you, bean? I felt guilty. But I had grown cannellini and borlotti beans this year, as well as favas; my Italian neighbor grows an odd all-black cowpea that I’ve yet to cook, but I have a jar full of the little legumes waiting for water and heat.
What to do? I love traditional New England baked beans, but I am doing more Italian and Spanish stuff these days, so I thought I’d alter that traditional recipe for Mediterranean tastes. Guanciale or pancetta instead of bacon, chopped fennel, homemade saba and a little red wine. Mmmm. The result is above.
How did they come out? Silky, smooth, sweet, dense, rich and smoky. Total comfort food. I’ve made two versions of this recipe thus far, and each time I find myself eating it for both lunch and dinner. It’s that good.
TUSCAN BAKED BEANS
This is my attempt to bring a Mediterranean influence to traditional New England baked beans. It’s a delicious recipe, but it requires a great deal of cooking time. I think it’s worth it. These beans are wonderful all by themselves, but they’d also be good with sausages, white rice, or as a side dish in a larger meal. And I’ve used two kinds of beans with them so far — cannellini and borlotti — and have found I like the borlotti better. You could use any kind of large bean.
Prep Time: 24 hours
Cook Time: 5 hours
- 1 pound dried borlotti beans or cranberry beans
- 1/2 pound guanciale or pancetta, cut into batons
- 3 chopped shallots
- 1/2 bulb fennel, chopped
- 1 tablespoon hot paprika or 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 4 tablespoons saba, a reduced grape must syrup (you could use honey)
- 1 quart duck, chicken or vegetable broth
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- Soak beans overnight in cold water.
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
- In a deep pot with a lid or a Dutch oven, render out the bacon over medium-low heat, and when it’s just starting to get crispy, raise the heat to medium and add the shallots and fennel and sweat them; you don’t want the veggies to color. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Stir in tomato paste, molasses, saba and wine. Combine thoroughly. Add the beans and the broth and stir, then add the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once at a boil, cover and put into the oven. Check after 5 hours. It might take as many as 7 hours, depending on how old your beans are.