If you are lucky enough to find fresh cannellini beans then you will get the full benefit of this recipe and will realise why Tuscans are affectionately known as bean eaters. If fresh beans are unavailable, use dried ones if possible, or canned ones only as a last resort and after rinsing them carefully under running water. In some parts of the region, chunks of tuna or strips of pickled herring are added.
Shell the fresh beans and place them in a flameproof terracotta pot. If using soaked, dried beans, bring them up to the boil in fresh water, then drain and rinse carefully. If using canned beans, rinse and drain. Cover fresh or soaked, dried beans with 3 times their volume of fresh water. Add the sage leaves and plenty of salt and pepper. Stir and cover.
Simmer the beans on a very low heat, well below boiling point, for up to 4 hours. Keep an eye on them after the first hour. If the temperature is too high, they could easily cook through too soon and go on to be horribly mushy. Strictly canned beans are already cooked, but at a low temperature they can be stewed gently in a little covering water for 30 minutes to impregnate them with the flavour of the sage. The ideal is that the beans should exactly absorb their water and then be dressed in the cooking pot. If they cook for a full 4 hours, they could absorb 4 times their own volume of water. But if this doesn't go quite as planned, and they are cooked before the water has gone, drain them and return to the pot.
Dress with plenty of olive oil, the lemon juice and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve hot.
© 1995 Valentina Harris. All rights reserved.