Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Defense of Legumes: White Bean Stew

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like cooking with legumes. They can be the basis for some excellent dishes like this one and this one; they pair beautifully with curry, and they can be turned into some delicious dips. The truth is, though, if you took my favorite legume-based dish and matched it up with my favorite meat-based dish and asked me which one I liked more, meat would win, hands down. Meat adds fat, flavor complexity, and texture to a dish. It should be eaten sparingly, but also, with great enjoyment. So, when I decided to make white beans stewed in tomato sauce for dinner a few nights ago, I hoped it would be good, but I expected that it would not have the same depth and richness that a meat-based stew would have.

Before moving on, let me qualify this belief: first of all, if what I really crave is the multi-layered pleasure of eating meat, is it really true that I enjoy legumes, that they are, in fact, one of my favorite types of ingredients to work with? I’ll answer by explaining that the reasons why I enjoy cooking with and eating legumes are very different from the reasons why I enjoy cooking with and eating meat. While meat adds fat, flavor complexity, and texture to a dish, legumes tend to compliment other delicious flavors, rather than add their own. They don’t have all that much flavor by themselves, but they work as an excellent canvas for other ingredients and distinctive aromatics.
Now, getting back to my white bean stew: I had seen recipes for white beans cooked in tomato sauce a number of times before, so I decided to make my own version. I figured if I made a good tomato sauce and cooked the beans in it, I would have myself a decent meal. Maybe not as exciting as something like the Ragu Bolognese I made recently, but good enough for a healthy, simple (in flavor, not so much in preparation) Thursday night dinner.

Well, let’s just say that I vastly underestimated the potential for flavor development without any animal protein. The basis for my stew was pretty simple: sweat mirepoix, stir in some garlic, red pepper flakes, and dried herbs.
I stirred in some tomato paste and let that cook a little, then I deglazed with white wine. I stirred in a can of tomatoes, some water, and my soaked white beans. Once that got simmering, I added some sugar, salt, and pepper. I also added a few ingredients that I think helped developed a more intriguing flavor profile than a basic, meatless tomato sauce: some smoked paprika, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, and a glug of balsamic vinegar.
The paprika adds a bit of spice, and a whisper of smokiness; the Worcestershire adds seasoning, and a hint of something dark, almost meaty, and the balsamic adds a little acid, a little sweetness, and that deep, caramel taste this vinegar embodies.

I stewed it for about an hour and a half in my enameled cast-iron pot, lid on until the final twenty minutes. In that last bit of cooking time, I tasted and seasoned a lot, working toward the rich, satisfying stew I wanted.

I threw in some chopped fresh basil at the last moment, and served it with faro. I think the stew would work well with any grain, preferably a whole grain, because I think that not only does the stew stand up well to the heartiness of whole grains, but even needs that backbone of something stronger than white rice or white pasta.
The dish was a total success—I was really pleased with the results. Meat may impart flavor and richness that all-vegetable protein can’t match, but legumes encompass a whole different eating experience, one that shouldn’t be brushed aside.

White Beans Stewed in Tomato Sauce
Serves 4
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 carrot, ¼” dice
1 celery stalk, ¼” dice
1 medium onion, ¼” dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. each dried basil, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and oregano
2 tbsp. tomato paste
½ cup dry white wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 ½ cups water (or, fill the tomato can halfway with water to get any remnants of tomato on the sides of the can)
1 cup dry white beans (white kidney beans, cannellini beans, or great northern beans), soaked 8-24 hours
½ tsp. smoked paprika
½-1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1-2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

In a large, enameled cast-iron pot (or any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid), heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the carrot, celery, and onion and sweat for about eight minutes, stirring often, and being careful not to brown the vegetables. Stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook a minute longer. Stir in the herbs and tomato paste, and cook a few minutes more, until the tomato paste begins to take on a rusty color and sticks to the bottom of the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high, and add the wine. Let that cook down almost until it is gone, scraping the bottom of the pot as it reduces.

Stir in the tomatoes, water, beans, paprika, Worcestershire, balsamic, sugar, and a little salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then cover and let it cook for an hour or a little more, stirring and tasting occasionally. When you stir, break the tomatoes up with your spoon. Season with salt and pepper as you go. In the final twenty minutes of cooking, let the stew simmer uncovered. Taste frequently, adjusting with salt, pepper, sugar, Worcestershire, and balsamic to suit your tastes. Try a bean; make sure it has softened enough. If not, keep cooking until the beans have reached the desired consistency (put the cover back on if this is taking a long time—you don’t want the stew to reduce too much).

Stir in the basil, and remove from heat. Serve hot with faro, wheat berries, barley, brown rice, or whole wheat pasta.

No comments:

Post a Comment