When I was a kid, my favourite thing to eat was baked beans and mushed corn. I would open two cans of the Heinz variety, chuck them on the whitest sliced bread and make a jaffle or toastie. It was the ’90s and suburban Australia wasn’t exactly a culinary haven. In fact, I think anyone who grew up in the ’90s deserves a get out of jail free card. I look at my teenage cousins and they are so stylish all the time. It’s positively annoying! I look and my high school photos with their light up sneakers and TLC outfits and cringe.
Over the weekend, I was craving something home-y, so I told Giulio the above story. He looked at me like I was nuts. Maybe I didn’t explain it properly, but he asked incredulously, “You eat pureed corn? Why?” I didn’t have a ready answer and I couldn’t prove him wrong since you can’t find Heinz in country Tuscany. So we settled on making a grown up version of my childhood treat sans the corn. I can’t get the man to eat corn! And voilà Tuscan baked beans.
Cannellini beans are a creamy white bean that you can find all over Italy. They have a fluffy texture and a slightly nutty, mild flavour that makes them perfect for this intense meaty sauce. While you can find them in cans, I prefer to use the dried beans. It reminds me of my grandmother’s stories of the old country, when she used to pick the beans herself, dry them in the sun and store in hessian bags to last the winter. Dried beans look scary, but they’re really easy to prepare. All you have to do is soak them overnight in a big bowl of cold water. Then they’re ready to be used just like you would with canned beans.
This recipe is a lovely Tuscan warmer that is perfect for these last chilly days of winter. If you can find dried cannellini beans, use them. They have a better flavour and texture and tend to hold up when cooked for a long time in a luscious sauce (like this one). The canned variety turn a bit mushy, but are still delicious!
There is nothing complicated about this tomato sauce. It’s the base for most wintery Tuscan dishes. It’s rich and intense with a great fresh tomato kick. A word of warning, make sure you sauté your onions until they are transparent and soft. When I first married Giulio, he used to complain about how I would never cook my onions down enough – a rookie mistake because then your sauce is full of crunchy raw onion bits. On that note, keep the heat low and steady or you’ll end up with burnt onions, which is just as bad!
Tuscan baked beans
1 clove garlic, crushed
1⁄4 medium brown onion, fnely chopped 4-5 roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon nely chopped basil leaves 1 teaspoon dried oregano
500g beef chuck, optional
200g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
thick slices of Italian bread, to serve
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan over high heat. Add the onion and garlic cook for 5-7 minutes or until softened. Add the beef, if using, and cook for 10-12 minutes or until browned.
Add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, add the beans and cook for 1 hour or until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened.
Toast your slices of bread and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil (I like to rub a garlic clove lightly over the bread too) and spoon your baked beans on top. Season with freshly ground black pepper and serve with a hunk of cheese and some jams for a Tuscan version of the ploughman’s lunch!
These beans would actually be really delicious tossed through some spaghetti as pasta fagioli! Weekday dinner sorted.