My talented culinary assistant, Emmy Clausing, came in to work one day last week raving about a dish she had made for her family the evening before. Along with roast rack of lamb, she had cooked cannellini beans with tomatoes, spinach and bacon. She reported that everyone at her house loved this hearty supper and that the beans were the favorite dish of the evening.
Beans cooked in this style are the type of robust accompaniment I love to serve when entertaining during the winter months.
Although this dish is ideal when paired with lamb chops or a leg of lamb, it would be equally good with roasted or grilled chicken. Or, you could mound it over warm buttered pasta noodles and present it as a main course. The beans can be cooked a day ahead so that all that is necessary at serving time is to quickly saute them with the other ingredients.
Emmy's Cannellini Beans
1 pound dried cannellini beans
6 cups chicken stock
1 small onion, quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch-thick slices
3 sprigs parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
6 slices lean bacon, fried and crumbled
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed (see note)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1, cups diced and seeded, unpeeled plum or cherry tomatoes
4 cups packed baby spinach or flat-leaf spinach leaves, cleaned and patted dry
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
To prepare beans, place cannellini beans in large, heavy saucepan and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to boil over high heat and boil 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let soak, uncovered, until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour. Drain well.
Combine stock, onion, carrots and parsley sprigs in same large pot in which beans were soaked and place over high heat. Bring to simmer and add beans. Lower heat and cook until beans are tender but not mushy, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir beans often and skim off any foam that forms on top.
When done, drain beans and remove and discard onion, carrots and parsley sprigs. Reserve 1 cup cooking liquid. (Beans can be prepared one day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate beans and stock separately.)
To saute beans, heat olive oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add chopped onions and saute until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add bacon, garlic and fennel seeds and stir and cook 1 minute more. Add thyme and tomatoes and cook 1 minute. Add beans and cook, stirring constantly, until hot, about 2 minutes. If mixture seems too dry, add up to 1 cup reserved chicken stock. Add spinach leaves and cook until wilted, about 1 minute.
To serve, mound beans on large platter or in large, shallow bowl and sprinkle with parsley. Serve hot.
Note: To crush fennel seeds, place in mortar and crush with pestle or place in plastic bag and pound with rolling pin or meat pounder until coarsely crushed.