Assunta’s Beans

I Fagioli di Assunta

What do you want to eat today?” I ask my husband. It seems to me a very sweet, solicitous question for a wife to pose, but it never fails to irritate Victor. “I can’t think about it now,” he usually snaps. But on this day he says, “How about Assunta’s beans?” It was said not without mischief, I am sure, because we hadn’t had Assunta’s beans since she had made them last, 45 years earlier.

Before we were married Victor had come to Italy to write and he had found, on a hill bristling with ancient olive trees, a villa that had once been glorious, from whose terrace one enjoyed an unobstructed, if distant, view of Florence. There he had taken an apartment. The villa’s impoverished owners had a housekeeper, a very tall, gaunt woman with glowing black eyes and the largest feet I have ever seen on man or woman. When Victor asked her if she had time to look after the apartment for him her face shone as though she had just been awakened from a long bad dream by the good prince. It turned out she was rarely paid and infrequently fed. In exchange for a small but regular monthly stipend and an occasional shirt she stole for her husband Pasquale, Assunta did everything for Victor: cook, wash, iron, gather firewood for the stoves, and, in season, scour the woods for wild mushrooms and asparagus; and bring in for his breakfast every morning, from one of the few trees remaining in the orchard, fresh figs oozing honey, dark green outside, blood red inside. And she made sensational beans, the most wonderful I had had up to then or ever since.

Assunta didn’t use a fiasco, a glass wine flask, as much later I learned was common practice in Tuscany. She had an old cast-iron pot, which she nearly filled with fresh cannellini beans. She then poured olive oil and water over them; added salt, pepper, garlic, and sage; covered the pot with a thick, damp napkin; put a lid over it; and cooked them for 2 hours or more over hot embers from a wood fire. How we had forgotten about those beans? But when Victor mentioned them, it was as though Assunta had just poured a ladleful onto my plate.

When Victor brought up Assunta’s beans, we were in Venice, where they don’t sell fresh cannellini beans. But we have something just as marvelous, Lamon beans, mountain-grown fresh cranberry beans. Theirs is a different taste from that of cannellini, denser, deeper, reminiscent of chestnuts. I won’t say they are better than cannellini because it would be chauvinistic, the sort of claim I leave to Tuscans to make.

The fundamental principle of this recipe is to cook the beans with a minimum of water to concentrate their taste. But the little water you put at the beginning must be replenished in small measure from time to time; otherwise, the beans will dry out.

Serve the beans on their own as a side dish or as a rich appetizer, or do as we did on the day I made them for Victor: Toss them with very good tuna packed in olive oil and lots of sliced raw onion.

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Ingredients

  • 1 pound unshelled fresh cranberry beans
  • cup extra virgin olive oil
  • cup water, to start
  • 4 to 6 fresh sage leaves
  • 3 garlic cloves, lightly mashed with a knife handle, and peeled
  • Salt
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • extra virgin olive oil to serve at table; see step 4 below

A 5-cup heavy-gauge casserole, preferably enameled cast iron

Method

  1. Shell the beans; if full and ripe you should get about 2 cups.
  2. Put the beans and all the other ingredients in the pot. Moisten a cloth towel and use it to cover the pot. Put a lid on the towel and fold the towel back over the lid. Turn on the heat to very low. The beans should cook at the barest suggestion of a simmer. If necessary, put a flame tamer between the pot and the burner to reduce heat.
  3. Stir the beans from time to time. After 45 minutes, add 2 tablespoons warm water, stir, and close the pot again. Add 2 tablespoons of water two more times at 20-minute intervals. Check the beans; depending on the heat of the fire, they may need additional water more frequently. They should never be soaking in water but should have just enough to keep from sticking. The beans should be done after about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Taste them. They should be firm but tender, and the skin should have remained whole without cracking.
  4. Drizzle with fresh olive oil when serving.

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