I used to hate beans. Couldn’t stand them in any variety or variation. Fortunately I managed to get over that dislike a few years ago and my colon is eternally grateful.
While I’m still not crazy about classic old fashioned baked beans (I can’t fully erase my childhood revulsion) I’ve become a big fan of some of the bean dishes that I’ve discovered since my turnaround. These include refried beans, bean salads, pork and beans, and the ultimate simple bean dish, Tuscan white beans with sage.
That last dish, Tuscan white beans with sage, is little more than white beans done up with a bit of garlic, sage, olive oil, and tomatoes. Martine introduced it to me a few years ago as a dish she used to make when she lived in San Francisco. The classic Tuscan way is to go very light on the tomatoes or even omit them entirely. But Martine and I are not Tuscan so we gladly go heavier on the red sauce because we like it so much. Intentare una causa su di me.
One of the keys to good Tuscan bean dishes is to use the right beans. There are, in fact, many types of Italian white beans, but the ones you are most likely to find on this side of the pond (and which are, for my money, the best choice anyway) are cannellini beans.
If only it were that simple.
It gets complicated because there seems to be some confusion here in North America as to what exactly are cannellini beans. The Italians don’t seem to have any problem with this, but most North American sources I’ve checked say they’re just white kidney beans. You might even find an Italian source who agrees, but if so it’s because that Italian source doesn’t really know American white kidney beans.
The two are related, but are not the same.
True Italian cannellini beans have a longer, more oblong shape than kidney beans (which are, ahem, kidney shaped). More importantly, cannellini beans have softer and more delicate skins, and a noticeably creamier interior. Taste-wise, they’re probably similar although I have not done a side-by-side comparison of undressed beans. But the texture difference is significant, and it’s enough to make me seek out the real thing for more refined bean dishes such as Tuscan white beans or Pasta e fagioli all’isolana. White kidney beans, on the other hand, are better for dishes where there’s a lot more stuff in the pot, such as chili.
Beautiful cannellini beans.
In my experience – which admittedy is not vast but at least notable – I have not been able to find real cannellini beans that are sourced from North America. I recently bought some Canadian white beans that were labeled as both white kidney beans and “cannellini” (the quotation marks were on the label). They were not cannellini beans. They were decent enough white kidney beans, but not cannellinis.
Here in Montreal I’ve only found two brands of authentic Italian cannellini beans (both imported from Italy). The easiest to find are the Bioitalia brand organic cannellini beans, which you can find at any decent natural foods store and most Italian grocers (such as Milano on Boul. St-Laurent and the Valmont chain of green grocers). You can also find them in the specialty section of most regular supermarkets like IGA, Provigo, and Loblaw’s. They’re not cheap; they generally run between $2.50 and $2.80 for a 398 ml can.
If you look a bit harder you can find Bernardo brand cannellini beans (non-organic) for less. They have them at Milano for something like $1.29 for a 400 ml can. [Update: I was at Milano today (Nov. 21/11) and they are .89 a can!]
By the way, forget about finding them dried. I’ve looked all over and haven’t found them. Martine saw some marked “cannellini” in a store on Market Street in San Francisco but it was too large a bag to lug around all day so she didn’t buy them and therefore I can’t comment on their authenticity. There’s a place where you can order US-grown so-called cannellini beans online, but shipping to Canada is expensive, and based on the photographs on the site they look like white kidney beans, not cannellinis.
Thus, if you find yourself contemplating a bean recipe that calls for cannellini beans, be aware that you can substitute white kidney beans or even white navy beans, but your result will not be as refined and luscious as if you take the trouble to seek out and use the real thing.
After all that, here’s something to get you started.
Blork’s Quick & Saucy Tuscan White Beans with Sage
- 2 400 ml cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed.
- 1/2 a 800 ml can of whole Italian tomatoes. (You can use the other half of the can that you used a few days ago to make Pasta e fagioli all’isolana).
- 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced paper thin (or minced; your choice)
- 4 or 5 fresh sage leaves, slivered (be careful not to use too much; sage can be harsh when overused)
- 2 or 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- salt & pepper to taste
- A sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano for serving
- Warm half of the olive oil in a deep saucepan and add the garlic.
- Sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until it starts to turn translucent (don’t let it brown; the heat should be low enough that the garlic barely sizzles).
- Add the sage and stir for 30 seconds or so.
- Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat so it simmers. Stir and use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes.
- Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, checking two or three times to make sure it’s not cooking too hard (give it a stir and further break up the tomatoes).
- Add the rinsed cannellini beans and a bit of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for another 20-30 minutes, again checking two or three times, and gently stirring.
- Turn off the heat. Stir in the rest of the olive oil. Check, and if necessary adjust, the seasoning.
Serve hot or warm with a sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano.
Yeild: four side dishes or two hearty mains. This goes well with grilled Italian sausages, roasted meat or poultry, or on its own with some crusty bread and a salad.
Note: For a more “authentic” Tuscan version, cut the amount of tomatoes in half and add a bit more olive oil at the end. For a super saucy version, double the amount of tomatoes used.
This is how tomatoey the recipe above makes it.