Tuscan Braised White Beans with Spinach and Olives
The name “Tuscan” is being used by us rather loosely right now. I blame it on Smirnoff for getting us all riled and raucous about what was Tuscan and what (clearly) wasn’t, and yet here I go for falling into the same trap. Is this Tuscan inspired, in that it is a hearty and appealing dish with simple, straightforward Mediterranean ingredients? Yes. Is this Tuscan with the flavors of creamy white beans, olives, rosemary, thyme and oregano? Yes, absolutely. Is this the Tuscan cooking that your best friend’s Nona would make on a Sunday evening? No way in hell. Nona hates tinned beans, and would like to remind you that you’re a heathen for cracking the can. And also, why don’t you have a boyfriend, pretty girl like you, and I’m going to introduce you to my cousin’s plumber’s son’s best friend. He’s a real catch, you know.
There are times when I’ll get an ‘A’ for effort in showing you how to do something in a way that some people consider to be right (yes, highly qualified, but I work in HR – that’s how I roll). Other times, I want to show you short cuts and lazybones food that every Dick and his dog can do without breaking a sweat or calling poison control. This is one of those times. We’re using canned beans, which means that I have officially lost 1/2 of you before we even get to the recipe. And even worse yet, not only am I using canned beans but I’m also using store bought stock. Oh, the shame! My ancestors turn over in their graves and the eyes of the Indigo Children start to smart ever so little. But hey, I don’t agree with the concept that homemade stock is the only way to go, and if you don’t have it you should use water. I have used water. It made me sad. Stock is there to provide flavor (and/or seasoning, depending on how salty it is), which means that sometimes even store bought stock is better than none at all…particularly in a pinch, which is where I always seem to end up.
(Nona is actually starting to cry, and now I feel guilty. Well, whatever. I use kahlua AND marsala in my tiramisu. What more do you want from me???!”
Truth be told, this is another one of my pantry staples dinners, because I haven’t had very much inspiration when I’ve gone grocery shopping lately. My first iteration of this dish was years ago with canned navy beans, warm pita, and a smile that would melt the icicles. I’ve made it since with canned white kidney beans, generic “white beans”, chick peas, frozen chopped spinach instead of fresh and even a hit of two of tahini when I was feeling more Lebanese than Tuscan. Every time, I’ve been happy as a clam chowing down on my creamy beans and greens, and feeling rather virtuous about my meatless dinner. So, of course, this time I served it with steak. Sometimes I just have no excuses left for my actions.
As far as vegetarian fare goes, if you use a flavorful and hearty golden veg stock this will totally constitute the better part of your better dinner. It is not pretty, that’s true, but sometimes the foods which are least visually appealing are the ones that I like the best. It is true that we always first eat with our eyes, but the smug and satisfied sensation that stays with us is what our stomachs had to say…..which can sometimes be just a little bit kinder. So yes, beans and greens it is once more and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Tuscan Braised White Beans with Spinach and Olives
Serves 4 as a hearty side dish
- 2 cans (19 oz) white beans *
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 6 small (or 4 large) cloves garlic
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 large (5-6″) rosemary sprig, or 3/4 tsp dried
- 3-4 large sprigs fresh thyme, or 3/4 tsp dried
- 1 Bay leaf
- 3-4 sprigs fresh oregano, or 1/2 tsp dried
- 1.25 – 1.5 cups chicken stock, divided **
- 1/3 cup pitted black kalamata olives
- 8 oz (about 8 cups) fresh spinach
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
* Navy beans are my top choice for this dish, but if you only have white kidney beans in the cupboard? Well, white kidney beans it is. I have also made this dish with chickpeas and it is absolutely delightful, although it requires less stock as the chickpeas won’t break down in the same way.
** This dish is perfectly suited for a hearty protein and fiber rich vegetarian or vegan side dish if you omit the chicken stock and use vegetable stock in lieu.
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic into wee little bits. Over low heat, warm the oil up in a large heavy bottomed pan with high sides. Add the onions and garlic to the oil as the pan is just starting to heat up, so that they will start to cook gently. You want to cook the onions and garlic until they’re soft and a lovely golden hue, as opposed to stopping when they become transparent. This will take about 10-12 minutes. Be sure to stir regularly and lower the heat if need be, because the last thing you want is for the garlic to brown or burn and get bitter. The subtle sweetness of the gently caramelized onions is a great balance for the briny olives and creamy beans.
Drain the beans and rinse them well under cold water. Add the beans to the golden onions in your pan along with the herbs and smattering of red pepper flakes. Pour 1 cup of stock (chicken or vegetable) over top and give it a stir so that the herbs can nestle into their new home. Put a lid on the pan and let it simmer away for 15-20 minutes, stopping to lift the lid and give it a quick stir once or twice as the beans braise.
After 15 minutes the beans should be starting to break down slightly. If they’re not, raise the heat just slightly and allow them to cook for another 8 minutes or so. Remove the bay leaf and herbs.
Using the back of your spoon (or a potato masher, but have a light hand) mash about half of the beans and leave the rest whole. You will notice that the beans soak up an incredible amount of liquid when you start to mash them, and your previously saucy dish will start to look rather dry. Fear not, that’s what the additional stock is for.
Add the additional stock to the beans, starting with 1/4 cup but keeping the other 1/4 cup handy in case your beans were particularly thirsty.
Coarsely chop the olives and give the spinach a good twice through with your knife. Add the spinach and olives to the pan.
Gently fold your warm beans over the spinach until it starts to wilt. If possible, put a lid on the pan to help speed this process along. Take the beans off the heat when the spinach has wilted (but before it gets stringy) and season the mixture to taste with salt and a good healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper. Squeeze in the juice of one half lemon.
I could seriously eat this with a spoon. And, in fact, I have done on more than one occasion. I feel the need to mention again that this isn’t Nona’s slowly braised (from dry) white beans with rosemary, but for the weekday cook I would say that it’s a pretty close proximity.
These beans were a delightful side dish for our rib eye steaks with olive oil poached tomatoes and honey balsamic drizzle, but they’re just as good as a vegetarian entree on the side of arborio rice, scooped up with fresh pita, or thinned with more stock and tossed with fresh boiled noodles.
(Or with steak. We likes us the steaks)