Preheat the oven to 450°F with a heavy 9-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably cast iron, in the oven. You can also use an 8-inch square glass baking dish if you don't have a cast iron pan, but you...
Like most other avid cooks, I develop food crushes.
For a while, I put toasted cumin in almost everything. I kept a small bowl of it by the stove and would add a pinch here and a pinch there. It was a new (to me) flavor sensation, and I was testing its limits.
Similarly, a few years ago, I had beets in my crisper drawer at all times. Along with kale, beets were the food of my farm days--cheap, plentiful, and filling. I ate them every which way, most often roasted and topped with goat cheese.
Last fall, there were quinces--that pithy but romantic fruit. Sometime in the winter, we discovered Aleppo pepper and will probably never be the same. And then, there were beans.
Beans are not sexy. At all. I think this is okay--more than okay, actually. I feel a little inundated with all the sexy food lately. Sometimes, rather than thinking about a big, juicy hunk of perfectly bronzed meat on a platter, I'd rather think about grandma food, or peasant food. Food that doesn't take well to photography. Food that doesn't get re-tweeted. My favorite kind of food.
A few years ago, I heard about Rancho Gordo. The short story is that Rancho Gordo works with farmers in California to grow heirloom beans, many of which are originally sourced from Mexico and Central America. But for me personally, Rancho Gordo is the source of a bean obsession that hasn't dwindled yet.
If you walk down the aisle at the supermarket where the beans are kept, you probably aren't going to feel inspired. Between placid rows of canned beans and dusty bags of dried beans, one doesn't get the sense that beans are anything special.
Beans are usually just an ingredient in something more elaborate. They are used as filler or to make a little meat go a long way. Not that either of those uses is bad. But it wasn't until I found Rancho Gordo that I felt inspired to use beans as the focus of a meal.
You see, these beans are beautiful. They are rounded, mottled, and smooth. Some look as if they were painted with a tiny brush by very careful hands. They are truly lovely things in the way that a feather is lovely, or a piece of sea glass. There is no artifice about their beauty.
We cook a pot of beans almost every week. It takes time, but a pound of beans cooked and waiting in the fridge is more than ammunition in the constant battle to get dinner on the table. It is a special kind of food security and a constant inspiration.
And even though we greatly prefer cooked dried beans to canned, we appreciate canned beans for the freedom they give the home cook. The trick is to see their potential.
The recipe below is written for cooked dried beans or canned beans. Give canned beans a good, long rinse in cold water to remove as much salt as possible. Use any white bean you like--anything from one of the gorgeous heirlooms that Rancho Gordo sells (their Royal Corona bean looks like a perfect candidate), to cannellini, great northern, or even butter beans.
We were not paid to say nice things about Rancho Gordo in this post. We do so simply because we find their beans to be of a consistently superior quality. Further, their commitment to heirloom bean varieties and the farmers who grow them is truly noteworthy.
Note: If desired, add chopped celery for extra crunch or herbs of any kind.
1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked dried white beans or one 15-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed well
1 medium fennel bulb
by cutting off the stalks and fronds and slicing it, top side down, very thinly (almost paper thin) on a mandoline.
In a small skillet, gently warm:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
When the oil is warm but not hot, add:
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Turn off the heat, and leave the oil to infuse for a few minutes.
Combine the beans, fennel, and oil in a bowl with:
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste or grated on a microplane
Several grinds black pepper
Salt to taste
Serve at room temperature or cold.