One of the best things about writing this column for TheBurg is getting to meet so many nice people who love cooking and good food.
Recently, a reader approached me and asked if I had ever cooked or eaten “Marcella beans.” I told him I had not. I had never heard of “Marcella beans,” although I assumed they likely had some relationship to the queen of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan.
His friend found me one early Saturday morning, shopping basket in hand, at the farmers market, and handed me a pound of beautiful, creamy, white cannellini beans, the famous Marcella beans! I promised to try them.
Well, a little research was first in order. What exactly are Marcella beans and how did they come to be? This is what I learned.
Steve Sando is a food lover and cookbook author from Napa Valley in California, who began growing heirloom beans and offering them through an online company called Rancho Gordo. One day, he received an order for several pounds of beans, as well as a copy of one of his cookbooks. He eventually learned that the person placing the order was none other than Marcella Hazan, author of the famous cookbook, “Classic Italian Cooking.” Hazan and Sando became online “friends,” sharing their thoughts about food, Italian music and, of course, beans!
Marcella loved warm beans with good olive oil and told Sando her favorite was Sorana beans, a white cannellini variety grown near the Italian town of Sorana. She said they were hard to find even in Tuscany but impossible to find in the United States.
Sando spent many months searching for Sorana seeds and eventually was able to purchase a small amount. The first harvest was small, but produced enough beans to send a small bag to Marcella. He was saddened to learn that, before the little bag of beans could reach her, she had passed away. But her husband, Victor, was happy to receive the gift and kindly gave Sando permission to name the beans after Marcella.
So that is the story of how the Marcella bean came to be. I was eager to try cooking them. These beans require a little more care than the more commonly available dried beans. They do best with slow, gentle heat and can’t be stirred too much. I followed the recipe below, which my readers later sent to me. I also had to inform my long-suffering spouse that he was getting beans for dinner.
Simple Beans on Toast
(From the New York Times cooking website)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 medium celery stalk, finely chopped
- 1 pound dried heirloom beans, picked over and rinsed
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
And if serving on toast:
- 8 large slices crusty Italian bread
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, onion, carrot and celery and cook until the vegetables are soft and fragrant but not browned. Stir frequently.
- Add the beans and enough water to cover by 2 inches.
- Increase the heat to high, bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer, partly cover, and cook about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Add more water if necessary to keep the beans fully submerged. (I followed this cooking time exactly.)
- Gently stir in kosher salt and continue to cook until the beans are creamy in texture but not bursting, about 10 to 45 minutes more. (I cooked the longer time.)
- Drain the beans and save the cooking liquid if you wish to use as a base for soup.
If you are serving the beans on toast:
- Toast the bread slices and butter each piece.
- Spoon about ½ cup beans onto each bread slice and crush slightly with a fork.
- Divide the remaining beans among the toast (about ¼ cup per toast).
- Drizzle each with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.
I tossed the cooked beans with lots of olive oil and served in bowls. I topped the creamy beans with chunks of jarred Italian tuna and several tablespoons of capers and served crusty Italian rolls and a salad alongside. They were wonderful. I plan to try the toast variation as a hearty appetizer for a Sunday dinner. The leftovers were great for lunch.
I want to thank my gentlemen readers for introducing me to Marcella beans. This has been a cooking adventure!