Tuscan White Beans and Pasta (But Don’t Hold it Against Me)

Don’t tell my clients this, but much of the time, the “recipes” I use are little more than a list of ingredients, and the vaguest notion of a method.

In putting a client’s weekly (or monthly) menu together, I pore over food preferences and sort through endless recipes, trying to find the one dish that will bring their menu together in perfect harmony.  Occasionally, that one flippin’ dish eludes me.  It can drag on for hours if I let it.

Sometimes in a fit of frustration, I scribble a list of ingredients I want to use.  More often than not, I can at least see a theme, if not the barest bones of a recipe.  I refine it, I call it good enough, and I call it a day.

This method generally results in something that falls between “pretty good” and “very tasty” (to my chagrin, because I’m always aiming for “holy crap, this is awesome”).  When I get very lucky, though, I get something that comes awfully close to my target descriptor.  I smile, jump up and down, and all becomes right with the world.

With this recipe, I got very lucky.  But this one particularly surprised me, mostly because I’d hardly give this recipe a second glance in a cooking magazine or on another blog.  It’s full of things I don’t love and never crave.  (But then, I’m not the one I was trying to please here.)

Sun-dried tomatoes, for one.  They’re often leathery and too sweet, and I don’t remember the last time I voluntarily brought the stupid things into my house.  Beans, for another.  Nothing against beans, there are just other foods higher on my list that I’d rather eat.

never again

And let’s not even start a discussion about that adjective: “Tuscan”.  Again, nothing at all against Tuscany.  It is a stunning place, full of wonderful people and incredible food.  But use that word to describe a food of American provenance, and I’d probably drop it faster than a red-hot poker.

But dang, you guys.  Dang.  This is a killer recipe.

It reads as slightly indulgent, with voluptuous Parmesan cheese and olives, but it’s full of nutritious ingredients, and it’s not so rich that you can’t have a spot of dessert afterwards.  And please don’t forget to pour a glass of wine with dinner, either.

As for technique, the idea is to add the ingredients to the pot as you chop them, so it all comes together in a streamlined and simple way.  Easy peasy.

Sun-dried tomatoes, beans, and “Tuscan” notwithstanding, I liked it so much, I made it again at home the next day.  And clearly, I still liked it enough to share it with you all.  That should tell you all you need to know.

Just don’t expect any more sun-dried tomatoes anytime soon, okay?

Tuscan White Beans with Pasta

Yield: 4 servings

It's true, I typically don't like sun-dried tomatoes. But here they are. Be sure to get the ones packed in olive oil; they tend to be more flavorful and not so leathery.

Cook the onions as slowly as you have time for. I made this twice, and found the lower-heat/longer-time method resulted in something just a skosh more flavorful. Once the dish sat in the fridge for a day, however, I think it was probably all equal.

It occurred to me while writing this that a splash of white wine, or maybe a few anchovy fillets would work beautifully in this dish, but it was really quite good as is. If it ain't broke, and all that jazz. Enjoy as is, then tweak it if you must. I probably will next time.

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces small pasta of choice, such as ditalini, cavatelli, or orecchiette
  • Olive oil, as needed
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon whole fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon dried Herbes de Provence
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup mixed black and green olives (3 to 4 ounces), chopped
  • One 3 ounce container sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, drained and chopped
  • 2 cans white beans, such as Cannellini or Great Northern
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
  • Fresh minced basil, to finish (optional)

Instructions

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt heavily, and cook the pasta until just al dente. Drain, toss with a little olive oil, cover, and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low heat in a Dutch oven or any other big, heavy pan. Add the bay leaf, fennel seed, herbes de Provence, and crushed red pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

3. While the spices and herbs cook, chop the onion. Add it to the pot, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and stir to coat with the oil.

4. As the onion softens, chop the next three ingredients in the order listed (garlic, then olives, then tomatoes), and stir each into the pot as it is prepared.

5. Stirring occasionally, cook until the onion is well softened, but not browned, 10 minutes or so. Depending on your stove and your pot, this may take longer or shorter than indicated.

6. Add the beans with their liquid, and stir to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a rapid simmer. Lower the heat as needed to maintain the simmer and prevent scorching.

7. Simmer uncovered until the liquid has reduced and the beans are no longer soupy, 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, and mix in the Parmesan, lemon zest, lemon juice, and several grinds of black pepper. Taste, and correct seasoning as needed with salt, pepper, and a splash or two of olive oil (a good time to use the oil left over from the sun-dried tomatoes).

8. Stir in the cooked pasta. Serve at once sprinkled with minced basil and a gratuitous drizzle of olive oil, with a lovely little green salad on the side and a nice Italian wine.

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