How to make thrifty, creative meals with creamy bean puree
If any one dish captures my cooking style these days, it's the preparation from southern Italy known as fave e cicoria, where dried fava beans are cooked into a rough puree and laid down in a soft nest for a heap of braised chicory greens.
It's a model we riff on often at home, typically using a white bean of some kind and whatever leafy greens we have on hand, drizzling the lot with olive oil, cutting into a crusty loaf of fresh bread (or a stale one, slices toasted until barely gold), and digging in. Its flavors are focused and clear, delicious in an elemental way. And it supports my realization that with each passing year, I want my food to become simpler and more straightforward.
I rarely plan for this dish in advance. Instead, it presents itself as the perfect remedy for imperfectly cooked beans, the ones that I'd intended to use for something else but that cooked unevenly or burst a little too much through their skins.
Or it's an opportunity to take surplus beans, leftovers from a large batch I'd cooked for an earlier meal, for a quietly luxurious new turn. It functions, somewhat, as a remedial preparation, yet it never tastes like a compromise.
It echoed in a canteen lunch plate I was served last summer, of roasted and barely marinated beets, onions and tomatoes anchored by a silken, nutty chickpea puree that behaved like dip, sauce and main feature all at once.
This meal was striking for several reasons, but my major takeaway came via a comparison to our smashed beans and greens standby-and back at home, I realized it was a preparation even better suited to spontaneity than my usual approach.
Even if a bunch of greens is not on hand, some other vegetable (or three) will stand in nicely, for a meal of dipping, smearing, swiping, heaping.
The foundation works with virtually any type of bean you may have going on the stove, or stashed in the fridge. Gently braised or quickly sautéed greens, whether faintly bitter escarole or sweet chard or spicy mustards or pungent kale, seem soul-matched to all kinds.
Other accompaniments may lean in a particular direction. Milder, more purely sweet and buttery-tasting beans (various white, tan and yellow ones) pair more naturally with delicate vegetables seasoned with a sparing hand; earthier, more assertive-tasting beans (cranberry, pinto, red and black beans) may call for burlier accompaniments.
In the accompanying variations, I've offered a few suggestions for how that might look: shredded Brussels sprouts, hashed just until buoyant with crushed cumin, lemon and chopped cilantro; roasted cauliflower florets and frizzled leeks edged with crushed caraway and mustard seed; roasted golden beets, given some levity with a quick vinegar bath and a fluff of spicy mustard greens.
The recipe for the beans makes enough for about four; if you have some left over, save the cooking liquid left from simmering them - you'll need a few tablespoons to thin the leftover puree, and the rest is liquid gold, at least for a few days. Use it in place of meat or vegetable stock in soups and stews, and the bean-cooking effort will reward you yet again.
Truth be told, despite what looks like second-string status, I'm hard pressed to name a dish that fully captures the beauty and deliciousness of a batch of cooked beans. So if it's the first thing that comes to mind if some beans you have designed for another purpose go a little too soft, it will be more than a serendipitous swap. You may even decide that the next round is worth planning for.