Monday, September 27, 2010

Assunta's Beans: Mille Grazie!

I'm not sure how I developed a love affair with fresh shell beans. I'm not referring to the lima beans that were a staple in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland where I grew up. I'm talking about cannellini, flageolet, and bortolini beans. The kind with romantic-sounding names that show up as ingredients in French and Italian cookbooks -- except you can usually only find them in their dried form here in the States. It begs the question: why go to all the trouble to dry them, when they're so marvelous cooked up fresh? I suspect the real reason is that they're very fragile -- and that so few home cooks understand how to prepare them.

The latter is a theory I get to test out every year when, as summer fades into autumn, fresh cranberry beans appear in the farmers' markets in Boston and Seacoast NH. Because their season seems so brief, I start looking out for them just before Labor Day. When I find them, as I did this weekend at the White Gate farm stand at the Seacoast Growers' Market, another customer inevitably asks me what I'm going to do with them. (In fact, it was just such an encounter that inspired this blog!) That's when I tell them about Assunta's beans.

Marcella Hazan's Italian cookbooks are a great source of recipes and stories about that cuisine. In Marcella Cucina, she talks about the delicious beans that Assunta, her husband Victor's one-time Tuscan housekeeper, used to make him. Perhaps it was the story, but I craved the opportunity to taste them for myself. So you can imagine that the first time I actually located fresh cranberry beans, it was ecstasy. I was not disappointed. Cooked at a bare simmer, with sage and garlic, in minimal water and a big splash of olive oil, they become fragrant, creamy, and flavorful. I must warn you, they'll lose that beautiful cranberry color, but they taste so good, you'll probably find yourself whispering "grazie" to Assunta -- and Marcella -- too.

Assunta's Beans
from Marcella Cucina by Marcella Hazan

1 lb unshelled fresh cranberry beans (about 2 cups shelled)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup water
4 to 6 fresh sage leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
Fresh ground black pepper
A good extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the beans when serving


1. Shell and rinse the beans.
2. Put the beans and all other ingredients in a small lidded pot. The beans should be just covered with water. Moisten a clean kitchen towel, squeezing out the excess water, and fold it to fit the pot lid. (Use one you won’t mind staining.) Cover the top of the pot with the towel and set the lid
3. Set the pot over a very low flame and cook slowly at the barest simmer. After 45 minutes, check the liquid and add a few tablespoons of water as needed. Repeat twice more in 20 minute intervals. You may have to adjust the quantity of water to match the level of heat. (The beans should never be soaking in water, but should have just enough to keep from sticking.) The beans should be done in about an hour and forty five minutes. Taste them. They should be firm but tender and the skin should have remained whole without cracking.
4. Drizzle with fresh olive oil when serving.
These are best served the moment they are done, but they can be made through the end a day in advance. Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container and reheat gently with a tablespoon or so of water.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherry Tomato Sauce

Sometimes one needs comfort food, even in the midst of a hot, dry summer. For me, comfort food has always been pasta of some sort -- maybe because it was always my mother's welcome-home food of choice. Or maybe it's the combination of carbs and cheese. Or just maybe it's because you can sit down to a steaming bowl of pasta with butter, garlic, and parmesan within say, ten minutes or so of realizing you're starving. Whichever, I was hungry for pasta. And I wanted something more substantial than a seasonally appropriate fresh, barely cooked tomato sauce.

Luckily that day was Copley Square farmers' market day in Boston. The Atlas Farm people had a lovely selection of cherry tomatoes -- and I had a recipe I was eager to try: Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce, which I found courtesy of the food blog Wednesday's Chef.

Basically, you cut the cherry tomatoes in half, then top them with a mixture of dried bread crumbs, minced garlic, and parmesan and pecorino romano cheeses. I beg you, do not under any circumstance use the kind of dried breadcrumbs that come pre-packed in a tin. Make them yourself, as they provide an essential taste and texture to the dish. Once you make sure the bread crumb mixture has compeltely permeated the tomatoes, you bake them until they just start to brown on top.

Meanwile, cook some pasta. (I was lucky enough to have some fresh tomato basil spaghetti from Terra Cotta Pasta of Kittery Point, Maine in the fridge.) The only trick is to try and time the cooking of the sauce and the pasta so that both are done together. Just before serving, you toss the pasta and tomato mixture together with some torn basil leaves and enough olive oil to make a bit of a sauce, and you've got a feast that will no doubt leave you feeling very comforted, indeed.

The recipe says it serves four -- but I found it made a lovely dinner for one, with enough leftovers for a very satisfying lunch.

Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce ala Nancy Harmon Jenkins
from Wednesday’s Chef
Serves 4

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I used about half that)
1 pound very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs (Remember, no pre-packaged stuff!)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino (or, if you don't have this, just more Parmigiano)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried penne or spaghetti
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with one-third of the oil. Place the tomatoes cut side up in the dish.

2. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheeses, and garlic and toss with a fork to mix well. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture over the tomatoes, making sure that each cut side is well covered with the crumb mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until the tomatoes are cooked through and starting to brown on top, about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente. Time the pasta so it finishes cooking about the time the tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven.

4. When the tomatoes are done, add the basil and stir vigorously to mix everything into a sauce. Drain the pasta and immediately transfer it to the baking dish. Add the remaining olive oil and mix well. Serve at once.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Conserva the Summer

I'm just dazzled by the array of tomatoes available now in the farmers' markets in both Portsmouth and Boston. And while this summer's heat and drought has been hard on flowers, it's been heaven for tomatoes. Even the lemon yellow heirlooms, which I too often find mushy and tasteless -- have a surprising deep flavor. I find myself calculating how many tomato-filled meals I can look forward to until the season finally ends. (You haven't lived if you haven't savored an heirloom tomato and Monterey Jack cheese quesadilla for breakfast, with warm tomato juice rolling off your chin! Today's will have leftover corn and bacon, too!)

One thing that's been very exciting is seeing the interesting selection of paste tomatoes
that New Hampshire farmers are growing. I'm talking way beyond San Marzano. At Barker's farm stand, I've seen the little Juliettes that Paul Bertolli, who has been a chef at the Bay area's Chez Panisse and Oliveto, mentions in a chapter called "Twelve Ways of Looking At Tomatoes", in his book Cooking By Hand. He suggests cutting them in half lengthwise and putting on a baking sheet filmed with olive oil, adding a little salt, then cooking them in a very slow oven (180 to 200 degrees) for five or six hours to concentrate the flavor. I'm looking forward to trying this.

However, thanks to Bertolli, one of my current tomato obsessions is Conserva, a super concentrated tomato paste made in the oven. (In Italy, it's called estratto, and there, it's the blazing hot sun that does the work, over the course of four to six days.) In my convection oven, it takes about five- and a-half hours (it can be closer to seven in a regular oven). Coincidentally, I found one of  Bertolli's favorite sauce tomatoes, Principessa Borghese, at the Meadow's Mirth stand at the Seacoast Grower's farmer's market, so last Sunday, my sister Robin and I spent the afternoon chopping, sauteing, food milling and oven drying about 6 pounds of tomatoes. Though there's surprisingly little waste -- it appears that tomatoes are nothing but cells full of flavor -- we wound up with two Ziploc bags full of concentrated tomato essence. I suspect that next winter, we'll be grateful that we conserved a little of this summer's glory.

I'm looking forward to making some sauce next weekend, using Bertolli's sauce recipe. (Basically, this is the same as the Conserva -- only you saute some onions and garlic first, until softened, add the diced tomatoes, cook until soft, put through the food mill, then put the tomatoes into a clean pot and simmer on the stove top until it's the thickness you desire.) I suspect this year, our traditional night-before Thanksgiving spaghetti supper will be something to be really thankful for.

from Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli
Total time: 20 minutes, plus 7 hours cooking time
Yield: 1 1/4 cup

5 pounds ripe, good-quality tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage
1 teaspoon salt

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut the ripe tomatoes into small dice; this promotes the most rapid cooking. Warm a little olive oil in a wide skillet or casserole. add the tomatoes and salt and bring to a rapid boil. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until tomatoes are very soft. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the pulp through the sieve as you can. The puree should be devoid of seeds. (Note: I did this in two batches.)
2. Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the tomatoes in the pan in an even layer and place in the oven. If using a convection oven, cook for three hours. If not, cook for 5 hours until the water has evaporated from the paste. Use a spatula to turn the paste over on itself periodically as water evaporates and you notice the surface darken. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees and continue to evaporate the paste for about 21/2 to 3 hours, or until it is thick, shiny and brick-colored.
Tomato Conserva holds for a long time stored in glass canning jars and topped with one-half inch of olive oil. As you use it, maintain this level of olive oil on top. Store the Conserva in the refrigerator. Or put it in a large
Ziploc freezer bag, flatten, remove air, and freeze, breaking off pieces when needed.