a simple pot of beans

August 25, 2011

As I start getting old in my years, I am starting to realize there are two things that you shouldn’t mess with. The first is your mother-in-law, and the second is a pot beans. I am not even going to go there with the first – I happen to have a great MIL, so no worries there. The pot of beans is a far more complex issue anyhow (not calling the MIL “simple” you understand) because it needs subtly, which as we all know mother-in-laws can never have (hi Nell!)…

Beans are a favorite of mine, not just because they go so darn well with pork. Oh, and lamb to that point too. Beans have the ability to soak up so much flavor from whatever they are cooked in, yet remain delicate and individually nuanced if you want them to be.

We were recently lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Florence, Italy. My wife was taking an art class (she is an amazing figure artist) there for a couple of weeks, so the lad and I tagged along, with my folks too. We of course had a great time. Drank so much really good house Chianti, so much really good coffee, and ate a crap-ton (technical term) of really good cured meat.

Two things stuck in my head the most from the trip. The first was the Sant’ Ambrogio market in Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, the second was the pot of beans I learned to cook, thanks to the chain smoking bean lady that had a stall there.

Market Sant’ Ambrogio is the peoples market. Not the overpriced and spotlessly clean touristy one by the train station (Market Centrale). Ambrogio looks run down. It is run down. The people there have character. They also have some of the best produce in the city, and prices that are far better than we are accustomed to here ($4/lb for chanterelles anyone? 75c for a huge head of fantastic butter lettuce?). There was so much to love about that market. Little English was spoken, but I always seemed to be able to have a laugh with the stallholder and get what I was after. The outside stand with a whole massive porchetta everyday and prosciutto had to be seen to be believed. You learn quickly not to pickup produce yourself (slapped wrist pretty quick), but rather direct the seller to what you want. You watch the old Italian woman in front of you and get what she is getting. You buy the pecorino that the guy in front you with the basket stacked full of salumi and cheese is buying. You never seem to be able to leave the market without a lot of samples of bread, cheese, and meat. Lunch can easily be made by just trying to chat with the sellers. The sample of porchetta I got given to taste was surely bigger than most I would find in a sandwich here in the US. The bread guy took a shine to our son, and would always offer him a decent hunk of bread to eat as I ordered some cured meats from the next stall. It was a blissful market, full of Italians, full of character, and full of chain smoking stallholders…

That was the first thing that struck me walking in to this market. Everyone smoked. Everyone smoked a lot. Not just the people buying food, but the stall workers too. They would flick the ciggy out of their mouth into a dish before grabbing your produce with the same nicotine stained hand. The most expert at this was “the chain smoking bean lady” (as we called her). Right at one corner of the market was a woman selling vegetables and fruits. For the most part the produce looked pretty fantastic. She had the best looking fresh podded cannellini beans in the market. She had the cheapest too.  Her salad greens and tomatoes were top-notch. She was, in a word… awesome. Wrinkled face, grubby hands, cigarette constantly hanging out the corner of her mouth. A voice that had been honed by her 30 a day habit and the bottle of wine she surely consumed at every meal. She seriously taught me to see beans in a totally different light.

I bought a few handfuls of her cannellini beans on the first day of visiting the market. She asks me if I have garlic. When I say “er no, just here on vacation, I don’t have much” she gives me a look as if to say “for fuck sake, these bloody tourists not knowing how to cook anything”, and shoves a few cloves of garlic in the bag along with my beans. She then says “tell me you have sage”. I smile, laugh, and just give her another smile. She sighs, and dumps a whole shed load of sage in the bag too.

She then proceeds to tell me in broken English, which was far better than my Italian, to cook the beans in water with a good amount of garlic and sage. Then drain, dress the warm beans with olive oil, salt, and lots of pepper. “Rightio” I thought, and headed back to our apartment with son in tow, chewing on some lovely bresaola and bread.

That evening we cooked up the beans as directed by the chain smoking bean lady. They were perfect. Absolutely perfect. Smooth, warm, gentle and delicate. They were pure bean, but much more complex. Light and simple, but with enough going on to be interesting. Something you ate with a light summer meal of some tomatoes, cured meat, salad and bread.

A couple of days later we returned to the market, since we were out of beans (and cured meat..). This time I bought the sage and garlic. The chain smoking bean lady smiled and said “you liked the beans then”. Yes, yes we really did. So much so we ate them almost every night we ate at our apartment (which was quite a bit). We even tended to order the same bean dish when eating out too. They were always served very soft, warm, and with lots of good olive oil.

Whilst it is pretty hard to find fresh cannellini beans here in Seattle, they are easy enough to find dried. Borlottti beans (cranberry beans in the US) would also be a good fit – as would almost any mellow white bean I would think.

Bean recipe with garlic and sage

NOTE: I am not going to get in to the debate of whether to soak beans beforehand or not. I always do – not because I think they taste any different really than cooking them straight, but because I like to soak them overnight so that cooking them the next day is much quicker.

3 good sized handfuls of dried white beans (cannellini are good)

4 cloves of garlic

small handful of fresh sage leaves


really good olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put the beans in a pan, and cover by 2″ with water. Cover the pan, and let soak overnight.

Drain the beans once soaked. Put them in a large saucepan, and again cover the beans with water – again have the water line a couple of inches above the top of the beans. Throw in the pealed garlic cloves and sage leaves. Tie the sage leaves together if you wish, it makes them easier to retrieve later.

Slowly bring to a simmer. Try not to boil them – they can break up pretty fast that way. Simmer gently until the beans are cooked – this can be anywhere from 45minutes to 90minutes, depending on your type of bean and how old they are. The cannellini beans I use take about an hour, or just under. Keep taste testing a bean after about 45 minutes. You are after a really smooth mouthfeel to the bean, nothing coarse at all. When you think they might be done, taste five or six different beans just to make sure. Some have a sneaky ability to be totally mushy, whilst the rest rather hard.

When they are done, drain them and put them in a bowl. Liberally apply a good dose of that decent olive oil you have kept away for special occasions. Season well with good sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with a fried sage leaf or two if you heart desires.

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  • Lisa @ Tarte du Jour August 25, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I love the simplicity of your beautiful beans. (I never thought I would call beans beautiful before) And who polishes your copper pots? Wow!

  • August 25, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Wow…a perfect pot of beans…and easy! What a find!


  • Clairetweet August 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Great post. I love the sound of these simple beans…and oh! That copper pot! Divine.

  • Kulsum at JourneyKitchen August 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    I adore beans as well but girls should not admit that in open I hear? But I just did!

  • Barefeet In The Kitchen August 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Oh! These sound wonderful. I am going to try this. Thank you!

  • deborah fischer August 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    This is how my grandfather taught me to cook the beans. Oh, he loved a bit of heat to any of his dishes so he’d add a good sprinkling of dried red pepper. And sometimes to stretch the bean dish, he’d add a handful of broken macaroni. Divine!

  • Fran August 25, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Not only do they sound fabulous, they look like a work of art and you’ve made me want to get back to Florence … NOW! I’m heading into the kitchen to open the bag of dried beans in my pantry as soon as I hit Submit. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s dinner!!

  • la domestique August 26, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Great story- I love the bit about not messing with your mother in law. You need to use that in a book! I’ve come to realize that beans can be really special when done well.

  • Mark August 26, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Great story — freshly hulled cannellini beans? Wow! — and a great recipe. I’m dying to try it.

  • Epicuranoid August 27, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    You are hardcore, cooking your own beans in Italy two nights in a row. Maybe you should save some airfare next time 😉

    Nice post, simple is not always easy, sometimes it is difficult to be simple. I like that my Mexican friends have a whole different take on beans than my European friends, and being from New England, ours is quite different too — and lets not even talk about the folks north of me because it’s lunchtime and I’m too hungry for that.

    Most approaches are simple and usually I find the only rookie mistakes with beans (when dry) is over salting early on and when you think they are done, give them a bit more time.

    Soaking affects the sauce also, no soak gives a thicker sauce, soaking tends to leave most beans more whole and less saucy.

  • Liren August 30, 2011 at 3:01 am

    I just have to tell you how much I enjoyed your story telling. I felt as though I were there in the market stall, listing to chain smoker lady explain the necessity of garlic and sage to beans. I just love rustic recipes like this, handed down from one wise soul to another!

  • Shawn August 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Matt the beans sound awsome! I am wondering what you think about throwing in a ham hock during the cooking process??

    • mattwright August 30, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Shawn – normally I would say do it.. but I am hesitant here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this dish is really all about really delicate flavors, and I think the hock would kinda ruin that. Also, if you soak the beans overnight they take about 1hour to cook, which isn’t enough time to get the goodness out of the hock. If you were going to do a hock n beans, I would be more inclined to bung some dry beans in a pot with stock veg and a hock, and cook for a couple of hours that way. Totally different dish, but still good I am sure!

  • Brooke August 30, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Great post! I love the image of all the smoking vendors. I can imagine all the FDA people around here having a stroke running around like chickens telling everyone to snuff out! HAH! I am totally making these beans tomorrow. I actually have everything to make this right now, but you know… gotta soak the beans…

  • R.A. September 1, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Great post, definitely trying these during the winter months. A photo of said “chain-smoking-bean-lady”, would have polished it nicely. Well done!

  • Dana September 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    First of all, I am so jealous of that trip! How fantastic for your family to spend some time there. Clearly, we need to catch up. I was so glad to read this post as I am a confirmed bean lover and really don’t eat enough of them this way – plain and simple and perfect. Fresh bean season is upon us at the market and as soon as I see them sold already shelled (I’m lazy), I’m on this!

  • Tracy September 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Hi Matt…

    Just stumbled across this and you are absolutely right on with your description. I live just outside of Naples, and can attest to the fact that these markets are like vaudeville shows! The prices are great, but the vendors really do want you to get the most out of what you’re buying. I don’t think I’ve ever left our local market without a new recipe or a heaping sample of something…I get particularly excited when they start handing one of my kids fresh mozzarella di bufula! 🙂 I came across fresh borlotti beans as well as cannellini beans, and cook them the same way. They are perfect. Also, a couple of cupfulls of the borlotti beans cooked this way are AMAZING in Pasta e Fagiole.

  • DiggingDogFarm September 5, 2011 at 4:49 am

    Beautiful photos!!!


  • Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks September 9, 2011 at 6:55 am

    Wonderful post! It brought back so many memories of the semester I lived in Florence. During the several weeks of rainy days in the fall, a bowl of beans or pasta e fagioli made many a meal (along with chianti). Thanks for the inspiration and the visual journey back to the market.

  • Nick Hawkes September 18, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Nice post, reminds me of when we are down at our place in France, we go to the markets and usually buy much more than we were planning to, you sort of get all caught up in the moment and immersed in the whole thing, different approach to food down there. Particularly enjoyed looking back through your posts being a bit inclined towards food and photography myself.

  • alex September 23, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Great story about the market.
    “She seriously taught me to see beans in a totally different light.”! great character!
    I think that this Jamie Oliver version is about in the same neighborhood:, although I understand your emphasis on the subtle flavors of the bean itself with the olive oil on top.
    I’m from eastern Europe and the beans here must have a red sauce in and around them and bay leaves. Been soup is very popular here, too, made the same way and eaten with a salad of juliened onions with salt, oil and vinegar.
    Oh, and great copper pots, by the way.

  • Lemon September 26, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Beans seem to be less in the focus of these days cooking trends and recipes. Therefore I very much like you chose the topic and put a post on beans on your blog.

  • BF October 20, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Just catching up here and I read this post and thought about my trip to Italy in May — I went to the same market (amazing!) and ate the same beans everywhere I went. They were incredible – and I’ve been making them at home since. The best plate of beans I ate were found at Trattoria Coco Lezzone on via del Parioncino, so simple and so incredibly memorable.