A kitchen in Rome: Italians have a way with beans that puts them at the heart of everyday food, often in a form thats incidentally vegan. Here borlotti reach a roast chestnut-like softness alongside potato, tomato and herbs
Friday nights at Pizzeria Remo run like boisterous clockwork. Whether youve been going there all your life, or it is your first visit, the routine is always the same. You put your name and number on a list, then stand in line until youre called, the disorderly queue spilling from the pavement into the street. If all your group has arrived, you bump your way through the narrow pizzeria past the wood oven and the three pizzaioli, with bandanas and floury hands, spinning and paddling to a table that seems far too small, but you all fit in anyway. Once you have all got your legs under the table, you immediately have to dislodge them so the waiter can cover the table with a paper cloth, which you help tame as he dumps on to it a pile of small plates and cutlery, a slip of paper the menu and a blue biro with which to mark up your order.
We mark up the same things every week: a marinara and a capricciosa, a small red pizza, water and a litre of house red. But first, fried things on squares of white paper, a battered and fried courgette flower (not as good as they used to be). And, always, a plate of white beans.
I love how Italian bean dishes could include meat and dairy, but so often dont becoming, like so much good southern Italian food is, incidentally vegan.
At Remo, they are just small white beans among them a piece of carrot and a ribbed inch of celery, around them some cloudy broth and a halo of olive oil but they are delicious, at just the right point between floury and creamy: Romans say so come burro, like butter. They come with two great cushiony slices of bread with which to sop up the broth. I think they cook these beans in the pizza oven, I tell my friend, another Rachel, before going on about ashes and beans in a flask. The waiter, his allegiance to Lazio emblazoned on both his T-shirt and his forearm, comes over to get plates. You cook these in the wood oven? I ask. He looks blank. I try again. You cook the beans in the pizza oven? At this he makes a sound, the Roman equivalent of nah, and tells me we are not in Tuscany. We soak them, chuck them in a big pan with carrot and celery and cook them until they are soft like this, squeezing his fingers. Buoni, eh?
Cannellini beans, borlotti beans, kidney, haricot, black-eyed beans … I am not sure what we would do without them. They are as much the backbone of what we eat as bread, pasta and potatoes are. Italians have a way with beans that puts them firmly at the heart of everyday food, without the shackles of being good for you or good for your pocket though they are both.
Various varieties of beans work, but mottled borlotti are particularly good for cooking into an almost roasted-chestnut-like softness for this Patience Gray-inspired stew of beans, potato, tomato and herbs. It lends itself to variation though, so try it with different varieties of bean, seasonal vegetables and herbs.
For todays recipe, the beans do need soaking (I leave myself a Post-It reminder near the kettle).
500g dried borlotti beans, soaked overnight
500g plum tomatoes, fresh or tinned
6-8 tbsp olive oil, plus a little extra for drizzling
A large onion, ideally white, peeled and sliced
1 garlic clove
A sprig of parsley
A handful of celery leaves
A sprig of thyme
500g potato, diced
Chopped parsley or red chilli, to serve
1 Cover the beans with fresh water, bring to the boil for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse. If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel them by plunging in boiling water for a minute, then cold water, at which point the skins should peel away. For tinned, drain the juice. Chop the tomatoes roughly.
2 In a large, heavy-based pan over a low heat, fry the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt in the olive oil until soft and fragrant. Add the chopped tomatoes, crushing them against the side of the pan, then simmer for 2 minutes. Roughly chop the parsley and celery leaves, then add to the pan along with the thyme and allow to bubble for a minute more. Add the diced potato, beans and another small pinch of salt, stir then simmer for a minute more, cover with hot water and cook gently for 90 minutes or until the beans and potato are soft. The dish should be soupy, so if at any point the pan looks dry, add more water
3 To serve, sprinkle with a little more chopped parsley, a thread of olive oil, or some chopped red chilli, if you like.
To serve four: Dice 1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 small leek and 1 stick celery, then in a large, deep pan with a lid, gently fry with a pinch of red chilli flakes in 6 tbsp olive oil over a low flame until soft and fragrant. Meanwhile, trim and quarter 3 globe artichokes, dropping the pieces into a bowl of juice of lemon mixed with water as you go. Once ready, add the artichoke pieces to the pan along with 1 potato, peeled and diced and a pinch of salt. Stir so each piece glistens with oil, add 250ml white wine then reduce to a simmer, cover and leave to braise for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender,stirring occasionally. Stir in 2 drained tinfuls of beans. Cook uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring, until soft and brothy. Season, set aside then gently reheat to serve with bread.
To serve four: Gently fry 1 onion and 1 stick celery both finely diced in 6 tbsp olive oil until soft and fragrant. Add 1 small, diced potato and stir until each chunk glistens. Add 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 1 tsp tomato puree and a small pinch of chilli flakes, stir and cook for a minute. Add 2 tinfuls of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, along with 1.2 lites of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer for 20 minutes. When cooked, decant half the soup from the pan, blitz, then return it to the pan. Season to taste, then bring to a steady but moderate boil. Add 120g small dried pasta. Stirring pretty attentively, cook until tender, adding water if necessary. Season and top with olive oil to serve.
To serve four: Fry 2 chopped garlic cloves, 1 chopped onion, 1 diced celery stalk and a chopped small dried chilli over a low heat for 8 minutes, or until soft and fragrant. Raise the heat and add 700g chopped greens (such as swiss chard, spinach, dandelion greens) a handful at a time, adding the next with a tiny pinch of salt when the previous one has wilted a little. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, or until the greens are soft. Remove the lid, cook for another 2 minutes, add 250g of cooked cannellini beans and a cup of their cooking broth, stir and cook uncovered for about 5 minutes. Serve with garlic-rubbed toast, grilled sausages or white rice. Alternatively use an blitz into a thick soup; top with breadcrumbs.