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Author Notes: One of my very first experiences traveling as an adult was a trip to Florence with my sister. Many years later, it still ranks right up there as one of the best food destinations ever. While we certainly scarfed down tons of pasta and gelato, one of my favorite dishes was simple Tuscan white beans. They are creamy and a bit cheesy, flecked with rosemary and drizzled with great olive oil to finish. In Florence, we found them served mostly as a side dish, or sometimes as a starter.
I believe the traditional way to cook the beans is to throw everything in a large pot and let it cook in the oven for hours. I do it a bit differently so as not to accidentally crunch down on an errant whole peppercorn . . . —Oops! Were you gonna eat that?
- 1 pound dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed well
- 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 head of garlic
- 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 10 sage leaves
- 10 whole black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 rind from a wedge of parmesan
- 4 ounces pancetta, diced
- 1/3 to 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino romano
- extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Add the soaked and rinsed beans to a large dutch oven.
- Set aside 1 quarter of the onion, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 teaspoon worth of the rosemary leaves, and 2 of the sage leaves.
- Halve the head of garlic. Tie up in a cheesecloth the remaining onion, halved garlic head, rosemary sprigs, sage leaves, black peppercorns, bay leaf and parmesan rind. Add to the pot with the beans.
- Add 10 cups of water to the pot (you can certainly use a mix of water and chicken or vegetable broth/stock, if you'd like) and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer, covered, until the beans are tender, about an hour.
- While the beans are cooking, chop the onion, garlic, rosemary and sage that were set aside earlier.
- Drain the cooked beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Discard the cheesecloth.
- In a frying pan large enough to hold all the beans, render the diced pancetta over medium heat (it should be slightly browned and crisp). Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate. The pan should have enough rendered fat to saute the onion, garlic and herbs that were set aside.
- In the same pan, add the chopped onion, garlic, rosemary and sage leaves. Add a few good grinds of black pepper (hold off on salting, as the pecorino is quite salty) and saute until the onions are softening, 5-6 minutes.
- Pour in the reserved cup of bean cooking liquid and scrape up the little brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the beans and pancetta back to the pan. Bring to a simmer and simmer 2-3 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the grated pecorino. At this point you can use a stick blender, or the back of your spoon to blend/smash some of the beans for a creamier texture (you can also transfer about a cup of the mixture to a stand blender).
- Serve drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil.