Travelers to Italy are always amazed by the sublime simplicity of the food. Because Italian cuisine is driven by ingredients rather than technique, Italians are committed to using only the highest quality fresh and local ingredients. Last night, I prepared the Tuscan peasant dish, fagioli all’uccelletto, adapted from a recipe I learned long ago from Judy Witts Francini of Divina Cucina, a dynamic and charismatic American expat and food blogger living in Tuscany who teaches cooking classes and leads culinary tours. I took a fantastic market class in Florence with Judy years ago and regularly rely on her cookbook for inspiration.
Fagioli all’uccelletto consists of five basic pantry ingredients – cannellini beans, olive oil, sage, garlic and and peeled tomatoes. So how did I elevate this simple dish and transform it into nothing short of a “masterpiece” (to quote my husband)? By using the highest quality ingredients I could get my hands on.
Cannellini beans – I used Rancho Gordo Runner Cannellini Beans. I swear, when a friend recently turned me onto these beans, she changed my life. These heirloom beans from the Napa Valley outfit are as creamy as any I’ve ever tasted in Tuscany. They positively melt in your mouth. A few tricks I use to make them extra creamy: I rinse the beans with cold water and then soak them for at least 24 hours. I then cook them directly in the water in which they soaked.
Olive oil - I used the perfectly grassy and herbaceous Pianogrillo olive oil from Sicily available from www.gustiamo.com
Sage - I picked the first branches of sage sprouting from my garden. However, even if you don’t have an herb garden, try to rely on fresh herbs rather than dried. In order to make them last longer in your refrigerator, wrap fresh herbs with a dampened paper towel and place them in a ziploc bag. They will keep for a week or longer.
Garlic - When choosing garlic, make sure that the head of the garlic is tight and that the skin doesn’t easily flake off.
Peeled tomatoes – Every August, my family buys countless bushels of local New Jersey tomatoes and jars both ready-to-use tomato sauce and peeled tomatoes to last us through the year. However, there are some amazing canned tomatoes available out there. Choose a local brand that you trust or an imported DOP San Marzano tomato.
Judy’s recipe for fagioli all’uccelletto contemplates that you have pre-cooked your beans. She then makes a tomato sauce flavored with oil, garlic and sage and adds the beans to the sauce. My adaptation of her recipe adds the peeled tomatoes to the pot of just-cooked beans and simmers everything together until the tomatoes break down. I’ve tried both methods to incredible results – it just depends on which happens to be easier for you on a given night!
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking as adapted from Judy Witts Francini
- 1 lb of dried Cannellini beans (I recommend Rancho Gordo Runner Cannellini)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
- 1 branch of fresh sage leaves
- 3 tablespoons of good-quality extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 1 tablespoon of sea salt
- 2 cups of of good-quality whole peeled canned tomatoes
Rinse the beans with cold water and place them in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel, cast-iron or clay pot. Add water to cover by an inch and allow the beans to soak overnight, but preferably for at least 24 hours. Without changing the water, add sage, olive oil and whole peeled garlic cloves, cover and allow to reach a slow rolling boil. (If the beans appear to have soaked up a lot of the water, add another cup or so of cold water before you start cooking). Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook slowly, with the lid sitting slightly askew. Stir frequently and be careful not to scorch the bottom. Cooking time will vary anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours and will depend on the freshness of the beans. (Tasting is the only way to know that the dish is done.) Add salt in the last 10 minutes of cooking time (adding salt before then will make the beans tough.)
You can stop right here and simply drizzle some more olive oil and enjoy the beans with bread. However, to make these beans all’uccelletto, add 2 cups of whole peeled tomatoes directly to the pot of beans and allow them to cook over low heat until the tomatoes break down, about 20 minutes or so, stirring frequently. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with crusty bread. Buon appetito!