“I eat my candy with pork and beans.
Excuse my manners if I make a scene.”
–Pork and Beans, by Weezer
I could begin this post with a rose-tinted anecdote about how, during the run-up to our wedding in Italy, as Amy and I were lingering romantically over a typically rustic Tuscan dinner one warm June evening against the background of a bucolic, rolling landscape with honey-colored buildings dotted sparingly among neat rows of vines and olives — our eyes locked together over a tablescape of starched cloth, antique silver and leaded crystal — the air, heavy with the scent of lavender and the hum of cicadas, seemed to stir momentarily, as if a gust of breeze from we knew not where had suddenly, and unintentionally, loosed itself, darkening our moods and furrowing our brows with its unwelcome interruption.
I could conclude such an anecdote in lyrical fashion thus: as the sun’s dipping parabola cast its final, limpid rays upon the radiant skin of my betrothed’s temples, she recoiled in anguish, reeling like a punch-drunk prize-fighter, at the rancid bouquet now squalling through her nostrils.
I could also proceed with a lengthy explanation of why it is that fagioli e salsiccie is the quintessential Tuscan peasant dish, having sustained generations in that part of Italy, and how it sits proudly among the best of pan-European cucina povera alongside fabada and ollo podrida.
Instead, I could just as easily explain that during said nuptials we enjoyed many of the delicious bean dishes for which Tuscany is famous and, consequently, experienced the oh-so familiar sensation of, ahem, flatulence.
These days many people are aware of the wonders of Tuscan cuisine; the saltless bread, the magnificent steaks, the peppery, fruity olive oil, the tangy Pecorino, the bread and tomato soups, as well as the widespread use of beans that has earned Tuscans the moniker “mangiafagioli” or bean-eaters. What still mystifies most people though, is if beans always give us wretched and disgusting gas, why do we continue eating them?
Before you start clicking away, tut-tutting about the sheer childishness… the puerile subject matter… they should know better, etc., you might consider the anthropological significance of the humble bean. Not only are beans among the world’s super foods, being packed with protein (containing more than twice the protein of most meats), fiber, and complex carbohydrates, the simple act of growing them fixes nitrogen to poor soils enabling land to remain fertile without requiring artificial fertilizers (meaning they are not just good for you, they are also good the Earth), but, in addition to being nutritionally complete, beans are easy to grow, and, as a result, have been (pun intended) essential to human societies since way before bread was even conceived of. Thus, the histories of the bean, the fart, and the very survival of humanity are inextricably connected.
Not that our survival this past weekend was predicated on eating beans, but as we struggled back up to our fourth floor walk-up apartment wet and cold from chilly April showers, it certainly felt that way for a few moments. The idea of the silken texture of perfectly cooked cannellini beans bathed lovingly in a tomato, garlic and bay-scented broth, and complemented by fennel or hot pepper-spiked pork sausage hung like an apparition in front of us as we stuffed our shoes with newspaper and festooned every available hanging place with damp clothes.
Sadly, we hadn’t had the foresight to soak our dried beans overnight (we only had four hours to soak them), so we tried the oft-mooted, but untested, option of using the pressure cooker to make amends. Various online sources suggested pressure-cooking them for anything between 12 and 25 minutes, neither of which we found to be nearly enough. After three abortive de-pressurizations, and a total of around 40 minutes cooking, the beans had achieved the smooth, toothsome texture we were looking for. Having browned the sausages in the pot before adding the beans, onion, garlic, bay, vegetable stock and tomato paste, all they required was an additional five minutes simmering among the beans for the dish to be ready.
Settling into our meal, we were astounded by the restorative qualities of simple pork and beans, washing the warming combo down with something red and Portuguese and in the $8 range. The following morning, we were similarly astounded by the metabolic reaction of human intestines and beans. Happily, our marriage, having begun with flatulence, and now securely founded on a mutual understanding of the universality of these kinds of things, was able to accommodate such seismic eruptions. Our day proceeded with a long walk in the park, having left our apartment, windows open, to air out.
- 1lb (1/2kilo) dry cannellini beans (navy beans would also be okay)
- 1lb (1/2 kilo) Italian-style pork sausages, hot or sweet(with fennel)
- 1 onion, sliced coarsely
- 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large sprig fresh sage
- 2-3 tbsp tomato paste
- olive oil
- black pepper
- 2 pints (1liter) vegetable or chicken stock
- Optional: 1 parmigiano-reggiano cheese rind
Bear in mind that we used a pressure cooker and only soaked the beans for 4 hours, so if you soaked your beans overnight as instructed on the package, you could just as easily cook them for 20 minutes or so in a regular pot.
- Brown your sausages well on all sides in olive oil in the bottom of your pressure-cooker.
- Remove to a plate, add onions and allow to sweat for a couple of minutes
- Add garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
- Make a hot spot and gently fry the tomato paste until lightly caramelize
- Add beans, bay leaf, cheese rind and enough stock to cover the beans by about an inch.
- Do not add any salt at this stage or beans will be tough.
- Stir well and attach lid of pressure-cooker.
- Once up to pressure, cook for around 30 minutes.
- De-pressurize and test your beans. Take a view on how they’re doing. They may need a bit longer, but bear in mind the sausages are only part-cooked, so you’ll need to cook them together with beans for at least another 5-8 minutes anyway.
- If you’re happy with them, remove cheese rind and bay leaf, and add sausages.
- Cook for 5-8 minutes.
- Taste. Adjust seasoning accordingly.
- Serve in bowls garnished with sausages and bread for wiping at the end.
- Enjoy while making plans to improve your home’s ventilatation.