My last dispatch was about braised lamb shanks. You’ll find it archived beneath this one. We ate them with these creamy white cannellini beans simmered with a base of diced carrots, celery and leeks; with oversized wedges of fennel that softened with the beans over time, and lots of bay leaves. The recipe follows, but first— a word on bay leaves.
I believe you need lots. Take my word for it: you can achieve much within the culinary realm with a small handful, a few shakes of salt and a twist or two of black pepper. It’s a trinity of magical flavors becoming, like a miracle — more than the sum of its parts. I can’t explain it. I just have an unwavering faith in these three whenever they’re joined together.
Sadly though, bay leaves seem to be mostly impotent these days. I buy them in little twist-tied bags in the bulk department, and they’re always stale. Once dried, they lose their aroma pretty fast, like a couple of months. But, if you use enough — a small handful or so in a pot of beans or a stew, you can usually coax what’s left in life out of them. Perhaps I should buy them in airtight spice bottles, but they pack so few in there, it hardly seems worth it. Oh well.
As it happens, my dad’s got a tree in his back garden, so when I visit him in Dublin, I’ll stock up and come home with a harvest of a couple of plump, stuffed zip-loc bags. I’ll air-dry them slowly on trays for about a week, turning them daily to ensure even drying, and then I’ll store them in the bags. Fresh dried like this they are way more fragrant than store-bought ones.
I once ate a bowl of black beans in a Cuban restaurant in Miami, and the bay fragrance was wafting out so strongly, that I asked the waiter to ask the cook how many he used— he came back and he held out two open fists: I looked at them and said, ‘But for how many bowls?’ and he said, ‘Oh, not too many.’ I took his word for it.
2 cups dried cannellini or other white bean soaked in water overnight or longer.
1 peeled carrot. 1/2 a leek, rinsed of earth. 1 stalk of celery, diced ( and peeled if you like).
I large bulb of fennel, outer edges discarded if you think it’s needed, cut into six wedges keeping the base intact.
Water or stock to cover the beans.
A handful of bay leaves (dry your own, if you can!) Salt and plenty of black pepper.
Chopped parsley and olive oil.
Dice the vegetables and cook gently, without browning, in butter and olive oil for fifteen minutes or so at low heat, covered. Remove the lid to stir every couple of minutes.
Drain the beans, discard the soaking water and add (the beans) to the pot. Cover with water or stock.
Bring to a boil, add the fennel, reduce heat to a simmer, cover until really soft. It could take 3 hours; it could take 6. Depends on the beans.
Add salt, cook for another ten minutes. Grind in a load of black pepper. Probably add more salt.
Add chopped parsley, drizzle with olive oil and eat.
You could consider a fried egg on top; always a sound choice,