Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stew for a cold winter's day

white bean stew topped with garlicky broccoli rabe
There's nothing quite like stew to warm you up on a cold, winter's day.  Temperatures have dipped into the twenties here in NY, and all I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a bowl of piping hot stew and a good read.  
It seems I can't get enough of cooking & baking even when I'm not in the kitchen: my current read is a food memoir, by Gesine Bullock-Prado (if that name rings a bell, she's the younger sister of actress Sandra Bullock).  In the wake of her mother's death, Gesine turns to baking to mourn and heal.  Baking conjures up warm childhood memories of her mother's wondrous baked creations and other sweet indulgences, and it infuses happiness into her otherwise miserable days toiling in Hollywood.  Not soon after, she finds herself in Vermont ... with her very own bakery!  The book is called Confections of a Closet Master Baker.  It's an inspiring story, and a tasty morsel of a book, too, with over a dozen scrumptious recipes that scream out to be tried.  There is one sentence in the book that I especially love: In recounting how she got to be a master baker, Gesine writes, "I baked because it made me content and fulfilled and it brought happiness to others."  That's why I bake, too.

But back to something savory, the stew.  Tonight I'm making one of my favorites, a white bean stew with rosemary.  Offer me legumes any time of day, and I will not refuse; I simply love them.  This stew is incredibly simple, requiring just a few ingredients.  The flavors of rosemary and garlic, while subtle, infuse every spoonful.  

The recipe calls for dried white beans.  They're most commonly packaged in plastic bags, but I always look for ones sold in sealed containers (they're sold in bulk bins at Whole Foods, for example), because they last longer when stored that way.  The beans should be soaked for a minimum of eight hours.  Recipes usually say "soak overnight," but if you're planning on cooking them for dinner, the beans can be soaked first thing in the morning.  Soaking allows for shorter cooking times, preserves most nutrients, and allows the beans to cook evenly.  For a smoother, more velvety texture, once simmered a portion of the beans can be pureed in a blender.   I like topping my stew with some garlicky greens and served alongside some crusty bread.  The recipe, as written, is vegetarian, although it can be modified by adding some pancetta or thick-cut bacon.  

White Beans with Rosemary Stew
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey, "World Vegetarian."  Serves 4

1 1/2 cups dried white beans, picked over and rinsed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
freshly ground pepper

Soak the beans for a minimum of eight hours.  Drain, discarding the soaking liquid.

Put the oil in a wide, medium pot and set over medium-high heat.  When hot, put in the rosemary, onion, and garlic.  Stir and fry for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onion just starts to brown.  Add the tomatoes and bay leaf and stir for a minute, then add the drained beans, 3 1/2 cups of water, salt, and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil.  Cover, turn the heat down to low, and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours, or until the beans are quite tender.

For a pureed, smoother texture, place about 1/3 of the beans, along with some of the liquid, to a blender.  Blend until thick and smooth.  Return blended soup to pot and stir.

Serve immediately.

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