"Non si dice: fa schifo. Si dice: non mi piace." (Don't say: It's disgusting. Say: I don't like it.) My mother had to repeat that fairly often to me. As a child, I had difficulty seeing the difference: To me, the fact that I did not like something implied that it was inedible. And the fact that other people liked it -- that, in some cases, generations of people before me had liked it -- had no effect on my position. I wish I could make amends to my mother for my disrespect. It's not only that a lot of foods formerly listed in the disgusting category now are high up in my list of favorite foods, but that there is, of course, a big difference between saying "It's disgusting" (the facial expression while pronouncing those words adding weight to the meaning) and "I don't like it."
Towards the top of the hit parade of foods that I did not like were beans. I did not grow up in a house where beans were seen regularly soaking in a bowl on the counter in preparation for being cooked. Borlotti (cranberry beans) were bought when available fresh, still in their pods, then shelled by me and cooked by my mother right away. I did not look forward to the mercifully limited number of times per year this occurred, since, as a child, I had not yet acquired the attitude that allows one to find repose in chores like shelling beans, and my palate disliked the pods' contents any way they were prepared. In time, I changed my mind -- actually, my taste buds did -- and now I regularly buy and cook beans, fresh when available and dried the rest of the time.
The following bean-centered dish entails a short preparation time and a little advanced planning. I came up with a few different names to refer to this dish, then settled on pizza-inspired beans, because some of the ingredients -- tomatoes, mozzarella, dried oregano -- remind me of pizza. As an aside: After I started writing this article, I remembered a popular meat dish my mother would sometimes prepare to try and improve the standing of red meat, once solidly established in my "I don't like it" list. It is called carne alla pizzaiola: beef or veal scallops cooked in oil with tomatoes, garlic and oregano. These four ingredients also constitute the topping of pizza marinara.
Back to the pizza-inspired beans. The "little advanced planning" I mentioned pertains to preparing the beans. I previously described the way I currently do this (see "Table Talk," Dec. 11, 2008). I like to use canario beans for this dish or cannellini, and great Northern beans work as well. You are welcome to try other varieties: I always offer recipes as themes that invite the reader to create personal variations.
In a recent New York Times piece, Mark Bittman (aka The Minimalist) speaks in support of dried beans versus canned ones:
"More economical, better tasting, space saving and available in far more varieties. Cook a pound once a week and you'll always have them around (you can freeze small amounts in their cooking liquid, or water, indefinitely). If you're not sold, try this: soak and cook a pound of white beans. Take some and finish with fresh chopped sage, garlic and good olive oil. Purée another cup or so with a boiled potato and lots of garlic ..."
Bittman accepts the use of canned beans in emergencies. Though I don't cook weekly batches of a pound of beans each, nor have I tried yet to freeze cooked beans, I sometimes soak overnight and then cook half a cup of dried beans, knowing that it is an excellent idea to have them in the fridge, even though I may not yet have in mind a specific dish in which to use them. I then think of something. When I prepare beans that will later undergo further cooking, I take them off the heat before they are completely cooked, so I can finish them off in the dish for which they are meant.
I realize that I am keeping you waiting and you may have become a bit hungry by now. I will immediately shift focus to the kitchen scene. Warm up some olive oil in a rather large frying pan (I use a 12-inch one) and add three cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and an onion (1/2 lb. or so), thinly sliced in half moons. When the onion is soft (after 12 minutes or so), add a 14.5 oz. can of fire roasted diced tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 4-5 minutes, uncover and simmer for another minute, then add the prepared beans, drained. Stir, cover and simmer until the beans are ready. Add salt to taste and just a bit of fresh-ground black pepper, then sprinkle some dried oregano leaves, to taste. I use about half a teaspoon, but given the variability of flavor of dried oregano and the fact that excess oregano adversely affects a dish, I suggest that you know thy oregano and use your taste buds' judgment to add the right amount. Before adding the oregano leaves, crush them between your fingers or with a mortar and pestle to release their flavor. You might also use chopped fresh oregano leaves if you have it. Stir well and spread the mixture evenly in the pan. Finally, distribute over the surface a fresh mozzarella ball (about 4 oz.), diced.
Cover the pan and let the dish rest briefly so the mozzarella can soften towards melting. With an electric stove, turn the burner off and leave the pan on it for a couple of minutes. With a gas stove, turn the heat to very low for the same amount of time. In either case, serve immediately afterwards. It will make two people happy (maybe three, depending on what else is on the menu). A quick suggestion for accompaniment: leftover mashed potatoes shaped into small cakes, lightly fried until golden and topped with a sprinkle of grated cheese, then a vegetable side dish to complete the ensemble. Don't forget dessert: I believe that gelato is the best coda to a pizza sonata, and, by extension, to pizza-inspired beans. How about some homemade vanilla ice cream? (See "Table Talk," May 24, 2007.)
Simona's Pizza-inspired Beans
For the beans:
1/2 cup dried beans (canario, cannellini, Great Northern, etc.)
1/2 small onion, or 1/4 medium onion, halved
a couple of fresh parsley sprigs
a bay leaf
a clove of garlic, sliced
For the dish:
1 onion (about 1/2 lb), thinly sliced into half-moons
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
a 14.5 oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
salt, to taste
pinch fresh-ground black pepper
dried oregano leaves to taste, crushed
a diced fresh mozzarella ball, about 4 oz.
Soak beans in cold water several hours or overnight.
Place beans and water in a saucepan
Add onion, garlic and herbs, boil for five minutes
Cover and simmer until beans are tender, but not completely cooked
Let the beans cool in their broth, then remove and discard aromatics
Refrigerate until ready to use
Warm olive oil in a 12" frying pan.
Add onion and garlic, cook until onions soften
Add tomatoes, cover and simmer for 4-5 minutes, then simmer uncovered for another minute
Add prepared beans, drained
Stir, cover and simmer until the beans are fully cooked
Sprinkle salt, pepper and oregano and stir
Spread mixture evenly in pan, then distribute mozzarella
Cover pan and let dish rest over low heat to soften mozzarella