White Beans Provençal: One Foot in Winter, One Foot in Spring

This recipe might just as well be called “Tuscan White Beans”, but the idea is to capture the warm old-world flavors of this food.  To me, the food of Provence promises garlic, deeply flavored tomatoes, fresh herbs and the type of simplicity in cooking that can make white navy beans the star of the show.

Dried beans, or "legumes" will play a starring role

This recipe has one foot in winter, and one foot in spring.  I used white navy beans and combined them with roasted canned tomatoes, fresh baby spinach and arugula, fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, and red wine vinegar.

Click on this link for instructions on how to make the roasted tomatoes.  They take some time, but can be made in advance in large batches and used for any number of things. 

Roasted canned tomatoes can be prepared in advance.

The beans are soaked overnight or during the day. After soaking they are boiled for about an hour.  This depends on how fresh they are.  They’re all dried beans, but some were dried last summer and will take longer to cook.  Likewise, if you use pinto beans, they will not take as long to cook as small white beans.  So after 45 minutes, it’s best to try them every 10-15 minutes.  You want them to be cooked enough that they’re soft, but not so much that they collapse into mush. 

On days when you haven’t had time to soak beans overnight, canned beans could also be used.  This would not only save you the soaking time, but the boiling time as well.  I am partial to beginning with dried beans, but canned would work.

I cook them with a bay leaf, dried herbes de Provence (Italian seasoning would work here too), dry sage, garlic, lemon zest, and black pepper.  Salt should not be used as it will interfere with the softening of the beans. 

I also do not use fresh herbs because any benefit to using fresh over dried is lost in an hour of boiling.  Reserve the fresh herbs to add when they come out of the pot.

Fresh herbs like basil are a great addition, but at the end, after cooking.

While the beans are cooking, I toasted some pine nuts.  They add an unmistakable flavor, but must be toasted to bring that flavor out of the nuts.  Here is how toasting pine nuts goes:  nothing, nothing, nothing, black!  In the blink of an eye they can burn and there is only one option if that happens, throw them out.

So to toast them, put a handful of pine nuts in a dry skillet over med-high heat.  Shake the pan every minute or so to roll the nuts around.  Stay standing there!  Don’t answer the phone or check on the beans or grab a glass of water because they will go from nothing to brown to black very quickly.  Just keep shaking the pan and do so until they nearly all have a deep browning on all sides.  If any start to burn, it’s best to just pour them all out of the pan because the rest will not be far behind.  When they’re done pour them onto a plate to cool.

Toast pine nuts in a dry pan. Ideally they will be uniformly browned.

While the beans are cooking, wash and tear the greens.  I had baby spinach on hand, but arugula, spring mix lettuce, mustard greens or even flat leaf parsley would work.

I also have a thriving basil plant that sits all winter on a radiator in the one sunny window of our house.   Basil is not, however, the only fresh herb you could use.  Again, parsley, thyme, oregano, any of these would work.

Here now–in my opinion–is the key to the success of the beans.  Before you take them off the stove, have a bowl ready with a large amount of vinegar (like a half cup if using a pound of dried beans).  I use red wine vinegar, and most types of vinegar would work, but I wouldn’t use something sweet like balsamic.  Each, of course, will have its own flavor.  Drain the beans and add them to the vinegar.  Toss them to coat and cover the bowl for 10 minutes or so.  It seems like a lot of vinegar and when the warm beans hit the vinegar your nose will tingle; but, the beans are so dense and bland that they really benefit from this.  They will not have a sharp pickled flavor, but they will have a pleasant bright note one doesn’t normally find in beans.  (This secret, I owe to radio host and cookbook author Lynn Rosetto Casper who’s book “Italian Country Cooking” is something I recommend to everyone. see @splendidTable)

After they have sat for a bit add the greens, mix them well and cover for another 5 minutes.  This will wilt them slightly.  Now add the tomatoes, fresh herbs, and pine nuts.  Season the dish with salt and pepper, and a light drizzle of good quality olive oil.

This is where peasant food meets fine dining!

There are endless alternatives to the ingredients used above.  You could, for example, shred a rotisserie chicken (it would obviously no longer be vegetarian but it would be a complete meal for meat eaters.)

You could also add roasted vegetables, there’s no need to stop at just tomatoes.

For meat eaters, the addition of shredded chicken or duck with roasted vegetables makes it a hearty, one-pot meal.

Experiment not just with the added ingredients, but with different types of beans as well.  The technique will be the same.  Let me know what works for you! 


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