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Tuscan beans
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Tuscan beans

This traditional favorite from Tuscany takes a while, especially if you make it with dry beans, but it's extremely simple and requires very little effort - most of your time will be spent in waiting - and it's well worth the wait for a hearty meatless meal that's enjoyable summer or winter.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves six to eight, or two with leftovers to last a long time)

1 pound dry white beans - cannellini, navy or Great Northern
1 large white onion
1 tablespoon dried sage or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh
Salt
Black pepper
Olive oil

PREPARATION:

1. The night before, put the dry beans in a pot with enough water to cover them plus about 1 inch. Leave to soak overnight. Changing the water occasionally is optional; some authorities say it makes the beans more digestible. (Yes, you may substitute canned white beans, dried and rinsed, and skip the overnight soak. But the dish will be better if you do it the old-fashioned way, as the canned beans will turn mushy.)

2. On cooking day, drain the beans thoroughly, then put them in a heavy dutch oven with enough fresh water to cover plus about an inch. Peel the onion but leave it whole, and add it and the sage to the beans. Bring to a boil on top of the stove, then put them in an oven at VERY low temperature and bake until the beans are creamy but not falling apart. Cooking time will vary depending on the temperature and the type and age of the beans, so you should keep an eye on them ... it may take an hour at 250F or as long as two hours at 170F, if you can set your oven that low. In any case, long and very gentle simmering is the key. (In the old days, it's said, Tuscan families would borrow the local baker's oven after the day's bread was done and the fire was going out, allowing the beans to simmer gently as the oven slowly cooled.)

3. The traditional dish is allowed to cool to room temperature before serving, but it's certainly OK to eat 'em while they're hot. Either way, add salt and pepper to taste only when served, and drizzle the top of each bowl with a little extra-virgin olive oil. A loaf of bread, a salad and a glass of wine makes this a meal, but you can also use the beans as a base for heartier stuff. For instance, stir in a ration of short pasta and a bit of tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes and you've got pasta e fagiole (pasta and beans).

MATCHING WINE: This dish works well with a variety of wines - a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to match the herbs, or a dry Italian white such as Gavi or Soave, or even a light, fruity-tart red: Look to Tuscany for this Tuscan dish and choose a Chianti or regional Toscano.

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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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