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Put time into dinner now, and you can make it last forever -- or at least the whole week. Welcome to Halfway to Dinner, where we show you how to stretch your staples every which way.
Today: Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of The Canal House show us the best ways to work a pot of white beans -- all week long.
We often keep a pot of brothy beans in the refrigerator (they keep nicely for up to 5 days), and it gives us an instant leg up on putting a meal together. We usually use cannellini but often cook what we have on hand or what sounds good to us. Canned beans are okay in a pinch, of course, but they don’t really have the fresh sweet flavor and just-tender, somewhat toothsome texture of beans that you've cooked yourself.
Some tips to make your beans even better:
When you're buying beans, choose those that have been recently harvested and dried (look for an expiration date, and try shopping at a store that moves a lot of them off the shelves), as older beans grow a tough and impermeable shell. If you soak your beans, they only need about 4 hours -- the oft-used phrase “soak the beans overnight” is more about convenience.
Or, use the “quick” soak method: Put the beans in a pot, cover them with cold water, bring the water to a boil, and remove the pot from heat. Cover the pot and let the beans soak for 1 hour. Drain, then cover the beans with fresh cold water and gently simmer them until tender. If you forgo soaking altogether, just put the unsoaked beans right in a pot, cover with cold water, and onto the stove for a gentle simmer they go. We salt our bean-cooking water -- kitchen lore forbidding this is just not true -- and always cook them slow and low.
Here's our standby cooking method for basic cooked dried beans. Make a pot-full on Sunday, and we’ll show you how to eat well all week.
Cassoulet Our Way
To make a traditional cassoulet—the emblematic “pot of beans” from France’s Lengadòc region -- it takes a special earthenware pot, at least five kinds of meats, and three to four days of fussing and tending to prepare and cook. When we don’t have the luxury of time, we make this simplified version. It’s an easy weeknight meal and satisfies our hunger for the real thing.
Braised Escarole with White Beans
Escarole always needs a good soak in cold water to rid it of the dirt trapped between its leaves. We wash it just before preparing this classic Italian dish so that the leaves still have water clinging to them when they are added to the skillet. This way, when they meet a warm slick of oil and a sliced clove of garlic, they wilt gently instead of frying. Once the leaves are wilted, add 1 or 2 cups of beans and a bit of their cooking water (or a small ladleful of water), season, and braise until the beans are warmed through and the escarole is still bright and colorful, 3 to 5 minutes.
Beans with Sausages and Tuna
We love beans with either canned tuna or good sausages. But here, we poach fresh tuna in good olive oil and serve the tuna and sausages together to make one of the best surf 'n' turf dishes we know. Poach an 8-ounce piece of fresh tuna in olive oil seasoned with a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and a strip or two of lemon zest. Spoon warm beans on a platter, then add a few of your favorite cooked Italian sausages, the tuna, and bit of salt and pepper. Finish everything off with a bit of the poaching oil, some chopped parsley, and a wedge or two of lemon.
White Beans with Spicy Black Olive Vinaigrette
If you're using canned beans here, give them a little love before you dress them. Rinse and drain them in a sieve, and toss them in a good drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Then go in with your dressing: Stir together garlic, olives, parsley, vinegar, olive oil, and red pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and add the beans, tossing gently to coat. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Transfer to a serving platter and drizzle with more olive oil before serving.
Toast with Beans and Fried Sage Leaves
By week's end, there aren't enough beans left in the pot to make much of a meal, so we spoon the last of them over toast rubbed with garlic and seasoned with salt and olive oil. We fry sage leaves for extra flavor and scatter them on top of the soft, starchy beans. Finally, the beans get a last drizzle of good olive oil. Now that's a perfect meal to end the week.
Makes 9 cups of beans
3 cups dried beans, unsoaked or soaked for 4 hours or overnight
1 onion, halved
1 to 2 cloves garlic
1 branch fresh thyme, optional
2 bay leaves
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
Photos by Canal House