I grew up eating wonderful food. Both my parents were excellent cooks. Mom cooked most of the meals, but Dad was also very adept in the kitchen. Mom, in fact, said it was my father who taught her how to cook, after they were married, as she had little desire or use for cooking until she became a wife and it was forced upon her. Thankfully, she came to enjoy cooking immensely and was one hell of a great cook.
Both my grandmothers — my maternal Grandmother, “Honey” and my paternal grandmother, “Maw-Maw”, the pronunciation of which is difficult to get on paper — were also incredible cooks. I’m not sure my maternal grandfather, “Papa”, ever cooked, though like his grandson he sure enjoyed eating. Dad’s dad, “Paw-Paw”, also didn’t cook much but when he did, he shined. Among other things, he made a terrific and rather intense squirrel gumbo. Just watch out for the buckshot in the meat…
Our meals tended to be comprised of rich, heavy food. Deep dark gumbos, thickly layered casseroles, braised meats, vegetables laden with butter and cream. Eating vegetables light meant broiled or sauteed only in butter, minus cheese and/or cream. Dad’s side of the family tree is Cajun so we ate a lot of white rice, as opposed to potatoes and bread. To this day there are few things in the world better to me than white rice ladled with pan drippings from roasted meats. We ate loads of Tex-Mex as well. This was good food in the best sense of the word. It wasn’t the healthiest food, however, evidenced most effectively by my Dad’s sudden death, mid-sentence to my mom, of a heart attack at age 54.
I was 24 years old when Dad died. Blessed with his same genes, I realized I needed to at least try to eat healthier. Working post-college for ten years as a waiter in a terrific steak house didn’t make eating healthy easy. (Just wait for the waiting tables blog. Just you wait.) Besides, I didn’t really know how to eat healthy, or rather, how to eat healthy and still have the food taste good. This probably seems strange now but if you’re over 30, you might remember how different our thinking about food was at the time. Only ‘hippies’ were interested in farmer’s markets and organic produce. We were still being told margarine was healthier than butter, for goodness sakes! Much of what we were told and taught about food for years now seems insane, so it might be hard to remember how blinded we were. For me, a bowl of Fettuccine Alfredo made with one stick of butter rather than two sticks of butter, and a slight cutting back on the cream, was healthy cooking.
One afternoon driving to the steakhouse, however, I heard a woman being interviewed on NPR about her new cookbook…
She was introduced as a long time food writer, the only American and the only woman to be a restaurant critic for a major French publication, and author of some previously well received cookbooks. Her name was Patricia Wells and for the next 8 minutes or so, I was completely entranced. Not only was she funny, warm and very smart, she talked about food in a way I’d never heard before. She spoke passionately about getting the best, freshest ingredients and preparing them simply, letting the food speak for itself rather than dressing it up, i.e. messing it up. For many, this approach is now di rigueur but it was brand new to me. We didn’t have Michael Pollen, Mark Bittman and a whole host of other people writing or talking on the airwaves about food. Back then, save Alice Waters, about whom I also knew nothing, few people were talking this way. Patricia’s description on the radio of even a pot of beans was so sexy and sounded so delicious and different, I had to get the book.
This is Patricia, btw:
I bought At Home In Provence, took it home and over the next few months, cooked my way entirely through it. It’s a beautiful book, filled with photos of her home and life in Provence. The pictures and her wonderful words make it a great book to read, even if you are not planning to cook. But get the book and cook! The food was incredible. Everything from standards such as roast tomatoes or slow cooked meats to incredible new dishes I now make all the time, like her goat cheese and cherry gratin (WOW) or preserved lemons blew me away. It was so damn GOOD. (I’ve included my version of her pot of white beans below. It’s a staple I make often and love as much today as when I first gave it a try.)
All of this influenced me enormously. She changed the way I thought about food, she changed my approach to cooking, she started a journey for me that continues to this day. I’m healthier because of it, yes, but I love food even more now than growing up, which is saying a lot. Something else that comes through in her writing is her love of life. I had the chance to experience this in person almost two years ago, which became a second time she had an enormous affect on my life. That will come in a later post. For now, though, give my twist on her white beans a try. And don’t forget to check out At Home In Provence. You might be surprised who can change your life.
WHITE BEANS WITH HERBS (and maybe sausage)
1 package dried Great Northern White or Cannellini Bean (I love Bob’s Red Mill products)
Homemade chicken or vegetable broth (lots) or water
1 lb precooked smoked sausage (I like using Turkey sausage) sliced on the diagonal about – 1/4 inch to a half inch thick (optional)
1 package sliced white mushrooms
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped or minced in a press
1 large sweet yellow onion, chopped
fresh rosemary / fresh sage / salt and pepper
Rinse the beans and pick through them, removing any that are brown or shriveled. Put the beans in a pot and let soak over night in a large dutch oven. I use chicken broth or vegetable broth to soak my beans, which some may find controversial. I leave them out on the counter to do this. You can always use water. But I find broth makes the beans taste even better.
Drain the beans in a colander the next day, rinse them well, then refill the pot with more broth (or water), covering the beans about an inch. Bring to a boil.
As the beans slowly start to boil, in a large skillet brown the sausage, if using. Dump the sausage in the pot with beans.
Saute the onions in the sausage fat, adding a little olive oil if need be. (If you are not using sausage, just start with the onions in olive oil.) When the onions are soft, add the garlic, saute for a few minutes more then also add this to the beans.
Once the beans hit a boil, turn them down to a simmer.
Chop the sage very fine, or, in a mortar and pestle, grind the sage with a little broth to a paste. I use a lot of sage, about 10 leaves at least. Add the sage to the pot, along with the mushrooms and lots of rosemary, at least two large stalks of leaves. I do this all by taste, it is hard to put too much, frankly.
Add salt and lots of cracked black pepper. Be careful only with the salt, depending on how much salt your chicken broth has in it. I like to see the specks of black pepper in the beans. You can do this in stages, tasting as you go.
Let the beans simmer a few hours, again tasting as you go, skimming the foam from the top. I like them very flavorful. I also like the beans thick, with just a touch of broth, rather than a soup, so I cook them down quite a bit. However you do it, have enough broth that you can eat it with bread to sop up juice. You can add broth or water as needed when cooking.
Serve with a green salad and lots of good crusty bread, some red wine and you have a wonderful, hearty dinner. These also freeze beautifully, which is why I start with a large bag of beans. The recipe halves or doubles very well as needed.