Believe me when I tell you, as I am about to, that these beans are amazing. Discount the fact that I am a bean obsessive, a pulse evangelist if you will. These are some good beans. Even though previous to making these I’d had such a bad day that I had to eat a whole bar of Lindt to try and comfort myself, the beans were still the food highlight of my day, if not the highlight full stop.
The original recipe, in the River Cafe’s first book, is simply called ‘Cannelini’, and that is what they use. I used borlotti because they were the only dried beans I had – they’re one of my favourites for their pinky-purple shells and their rustic freckles, like little mini eggs, though sadly this washes out in the bath.
You must use dried beans for the texture. Comfort yourself with the pleasingly frugal and homely sight of them soaking overnight next to the sink. An important step which I picked up here is the addition of bicarbonate of soda to the soaking water – this really made a huge difference to the cooking time, which can run to an hour or more if your beans are a little old.
Once soaked, the steps of boiling, draining and boiling again may seem a little arduous, but you don’t have to do much once they’re bubbling away and you do get a fairly huge yield of tasty beans.
That unwieldy bunch of greenery there is sage. You throw that into the simmering pot with some unpeeled garlic and a tomato (I’m not entirely sure what the tomato did, but it was there so I added it) and then, when the beans are cooked and soft to the tooth you drain them and dress with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. What you get is almost silky, barely fragrant with the autumnal musk of sage and garlic, subtle enough to be soothing but, when lukewarm, almost addictively delicious.
These sat happily on the side of penne with tomato and balsamic vinegar and a mushroom risotto the following night, but I wanted to scoop them up with everything.
Borlotti Serves 6 as a side
250g dried borlotti beans (or other dried beans e.g. cannellini, chickpeas)
2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large tomato
1/2 bulb of garlic, unpeeled
A handful of fresh sage leaves
2 tbsp red wine vinegar (or the recipe suggests you can use lemon juice)
4-6 tbsp olive oil (I used a little less than they suggest)
salt and pepper
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water with the bicarbonate of soda added. The next day, drain the beans and place in a large saucepan. Cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then drain again.
Again cover with water and add the tomato, cloves of garlic from the bulb, and sage. Return to the boil and then lower to a simmer, covered, until cooked. You may find greyish scum will form on the surface of the water, which you can skim off. The recipe suggests the beans will take between 40 minutes to 1 1/2 hours to cook, mine actually took a little less – I may have been a bit over vigorous with the initial boiling. In any case, try tasting one and when it’s as soft as you’d like, they’re done.
To serve, drain and dress with the vinegar or lemon juice, oil, and salt and pepper. I think warm room temperature is good. An optional step in the River Cafe recipes involves crushing two extra garlic cloves with a little salt and mixing this in at the end, which I didn’t feel was necessary given that I’d just used almost all my garlic. That said, garlic and salt are two of my very favourite things, so next time I make this I may try the variation.
Adapted from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ ‘The River Cafe Cook Book’.