On Beans and Bay Leaves


adding chopped parsley at the end adds a welcome touch of color…

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.

me dad’s 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.

chop up leek, carrot, celery…

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.

cook with butter/olive oil gently for 15 minutes or so…
add water or stock, beans and fennel wedges…

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.

simmer, covered until done…

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.

When I say a handful, I mean it!


Rough guide:

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,



5 thoughts on “On Beans and Bay Leaves

  1. I always wondered about how many bay leaves. I thought one used one or two in your stu and that was it. I must say I have been tempted to use more. But an actual bunch – I was sure would be far fetched. Hugh thanks for expanding my horizons. Dez

  2. Hi, Hugh – I followed your recipe for lamb shanks. I used a big saucepan on the hob instead of the oven with perfect result. Succulent! It’s so easy and requires so few ingredients that it will be a mainstay of my cooking repertoire. Dad.

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