This recipe is the result of a convergence of two obsessions: Rancho Gordo beans and Tessa Kiros, the lovely and talented writer and cookbook author. She’s of Finnish and Greek-Cypriot heritage and has wandered the world, detailing her experiences and memories through food. Recently, my dad gave me Falling Cloudberries for my birthday and I’ve been slowly leafing through it each night, wishing it’d never end. The photos are just dreamy, and the recipes are both evidence of Tessa’s heritage (classic finnish meatballs with lingonberry jam, stroganoff, and moussaka) and a postcard from her travels (spinach and truffle pies, champagne risotto, and lemon vanilla jam). It’s one of those books where it’s truly hard to decide how and where to begin. Lucky for me, the decision just showed up on my desk with a bag of colorful Christmas lima beans.
After moving to the city, I’ve started filling in at the restaurant where I used to work before teaching. I work in the catering office and get to talk to people about food all day. It rocks. The ironic thing: it’s in Marin–where I was living until just a few weeks ago. So I’m spending a little more time in my car than I’d like to, but I’m breaking out the travel mugs and relishing the excuse to listen to more NPR (did anyone hear that replay of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me! with Neko Case yesterday? Love her). In addition to serving amazing food, the restaurant sells interesting olive oils, salts, sauces and chutneys–and Rancho Gordo beans!
If you’re not familiar with Rancho Gordo, they’re out of Napa and many farmers markets around here sell their heirloom beans, dried corn, and ancient grains. These guys are a variation on the traditional lima, but obviously bigger. They still have the “meat” of the lima, but with a subtle chestnut flavor. With a little bag in tow, I set off to explore the first of Tessa’s recipes: a substantial and satisfying vegetarian side dish that will absolutely become a stand-by in my very slowly growing repertoire. I did adapt the recipe just a bit, using panko crumbs instead of normal bread crumbs to add a bit more texture and crispness to the top, and played with the proportions of garlic and tomato. I like them saucy. I think you will, too.
Please note, not included in the cooking times below, is the fact that you must soak the beans overnight, so do plan accordingly.
Slightly adapted from: Falling Cloudberries
Drain the beans, put them in a saucepan with the bay leaf, cover generously with cold water, and bring to a boil. Skim off any scum that rises to the top, decrease the heat slightly, and cook for about 30 minutes or until they’re very tender. Add salt towards the end of cooking time.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Drain the beans, reserving about 3/4 cup of the cooking water, and put them in a large baking pan.
Heat about 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Gently saute the onions until they’re lightly golden and softened, stirring so that they don’t stick. Remove from the heat and fold in the celery, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, and remaining olive oil. Season with pepper and a little salt. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved bean water into the beans, and mix through well. Save the rest of the bean water in case the beans start drying out as they cook (otherwise, you’ll just throw it out). Cover the pot l and bake for about 45 minutes, them remove the lid, stir beans, adding a little extra water if they seem to be drying out. Sprinkle with panko bread crumbs and return to the oven, uncovered, for another 30 minutes.
The beans should be tender and still with a little sauce. Serve warm, with an extra drizzling of olive oil and some crusty bread.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.