|INGREDIENTS:1 lb. dried Italian butter beans.
You could, I suppose, substitute another bean, and if I were going to substitute, I’d go for Romanos or cranberry beans. You do need to use dry beans here for two reasons. First, when you can get fresh beans, you do not want to have very many other things in the pot with them since the whole point of going to all that work getting them and shelling them is to enjoy their fresh flavor. Second, if you used fresh beans, there would not be enough cooking time for the tomato reduction.
Either soak the beans overnight or use Julia’s technique: To the beans add 10 c. water and bring to a boil. Boil uncovered for two minutes, cover, and let sit for an hour. Drain the soaking water, as this makes the beans more digestible. As Julia says, if you’re concerned about the minimal nutrient loss, “simply eat a minimally larger serving.” Add enough fresh water to cover the beans well. You do not want a lot of extra water at this point.
1 ½ lbs. fresh tomatoes.
Ideally, you’ll have access to heirlooms like the Brandywine and the Purple Cherokee that are “meaty” and don’t reduce to almost nothing when cooked down. Romas are an acceptable second choice and are more widely available. Early Girls, even though delicious if dry farmed, are just too watery. You could throw in enough tomatoes to turn this dish into Red Spaghetti Sauce with Beans, but I find that 1 ½ pounds yields a dish sufficiently tomatoey and would not go higher than this amount.
1 lb. onion.
This recipe calls for a full-flavored onion. The Vidalias and Walla-Wallas would be wasted here. Go ahead and chop the onion, but you do not need to get all compulsive about it as the onion is going to disappear during the cooking.
1 head garlic.
You do not need to be gentle when you’re peeling the cloves, as the garlic, like the onion, disappears.
I originally made this dish with fresh oregano, but the next Saturday, I told Mrs. Iacopi about it, and when I got to the oregano, she interrupted and told me to use sage, fresh only. Well, I’d never heard of using sage in beans, but I defer to Mrs. Iacopi’s judgment. After all, when her ancestors were doing stuff like writing the Aeneid, building gigantic aqueducts, and perishing of surfeits of nightingales’ tongues, mine were dancing around campfires with their faces painted blue. (OK, the punch line is from Steinbeck, and I’ve been waiting for years to use it.)
There are many wonderful peppers out there. Use just the right amount of your favorite.
I subscribe to the urban legend that beans should not be salted until they are nearing doneness. Frankly, I think it’s probably hogwash, but I’m a creature of habit. Late note: It’s not hogwash after all. See Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, a marvelous book that every serious cook should have.
1 bunch spinach (optional).
This is a better addition than it might seem. Go ahead and try it. I mean a standard size farmers’ market bunch, which is routinely rather larger than a supermarket bunch. Wash your bunch of spinach well, stem it, and chop it up thoroughly. We’re aiming at green flecks here rather than green strings.