Recipe: Cannellini Salad with Sage, Celery Leaves, and Red Shallot
Making cannellini bean salad was one of my tasks while working at Le Madri restaurant in Chelsea many moons ago. It was a pleasant job. I like the way beans smell when they’re simmering, and more important I learned how to cook them so they didn’t get all mushy and explode. This is important esthetically, since you ideally want a neat presentation. They should look like big freshwater pearls, or at least they shouldn’t be a mess of cracked shells and broken, half dissolved beans floating in a pot of sludge.
One way to achieve this, or at least to have a better shot at reaching this goal, is by soaking the beans overnight. I don’t always soak beans, especially if they’ll wind up in a purée, but I find that soaking does plump them up so they can then simmer without having their outsides overcook while their insides remain hard. And it also cuts down on cooking time. Soaking is especially important if you’re using run-of-the-mill supermarket beans, which are what I often wind up with. Usually they’re quite old, dry and brittle, not the previous season harvest you get from small bean growers like Rancho Gordo or Phipps. On the rare occasions when I get my act together, I order from those two (www.ranchogordo.com and www.phippscountry.com). They also have heirloom varieties you won’t ever see on your supermarket shelves, which can make bean cooking a little more romantic.
But I’ve got to say that as lovely as some of these fancy beans can be, I’ve gotten great results using, for instance, Goya, as long as I treat them with dignity. And while I’m on the subject of bean etiquette, I was taught that you never, never add salt or acidy stuff, such as vinegar or lemon, while the beans are cooking. That toughens the skins and can evidently prolong cooking time. I have, however, seen many chefs and home cooks season beans while rock hard with all those things and they’ve come out perfectly tender, so it’s really hard for me to give you a solid opinion on this issue. I never used to add salt, but now I add a little at the beginning of cooking, plus a big drizzle of olive oil and sometimes small shots of herbs or spices. That has a big effect on the taste. When the beans are just tender, I add more salt, turn off the heat, and let them sit in their warm cooking liquid to become really tender and infused with flavor.
The cannellini salad I made at Le Madri was always the same. I’d toss the cooked beans with Tuscan olive oil, celery leaves, sage, red onion, and black pepper. That is still one of my favorite warm weather salads. The mix of celery and sage produces a deep musky flavor. But of course, once you get your beans cooked to perfection, you can flavor them in any number of ways. The only advice I have for you on this subject is not to add a whole bunch of things. You want to taste the beans and the good olive oil.
This recipe is a beauty, but other good bean salads I’ve made have included rings of tender calamari and flat-leaf parsley, or a few chopped anchovies, a handful of capers, and a little fresh marjoram. I also like a mix of black olives, chopped raw summer tomatoes, and basil. Roasted sweet red peppers and fresh rosemary make another great flavoring.
Cannellini Salad with Sage, Celery Leaves, and Red Shallot
(Serves 6 as part of an antipasto offering)
2 cups dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight in lots of cool water
Extra-virgin olive oil ( I used Ravida, an estate bottled Sicilian oil, for this)
About 5 whole allspice
2 tender inner celery stalks, chopped, plus ½ cup celery leaves, lightly chopped
1 small red shallot, finely chopped
A dozen sage leaves, lightly chopped
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Drain the beans, and put them in a big pot with enough fresh water to cover them by at least 4 inches. Pour on about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle on a little salt. Add the allspice, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to low, partially cover the top, and simmer, very gently, until the beans are tender. If the water gets low at any point, just add some extra hot water to the pot. The cooking time can vary wildly, depending on how hard your beans were to begin with, but start testing after about 40 minutes. You’ll want to test a few beans, since they can cook up a bit unevenly. When you’ve tasted 4 or 5 beans and they’ve all seemed tender, you’re good. Now, turn off the heat, add a bit more salt, and let the beans sit for about 20 minutes to soak in the salt and to become even more tender. Then drain them well, and see if you can find and remove the allspice. No big deal if you can’t. I like biting into one. It’s a pleasant jolt of flavor.
Drizzle the beans with about 4 tablespoons of really good olive oil. Add all the other ingredients, seasoning well with black pepper. Toss gently. I use my fingers, which work much better than a spoon for minimizing breakage. Taste to see if the beans need more salt.
These beans are wonderful served with a platter of prosciutto and good Italian bread to soak up all the herby olive oil.