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Tuscan Bean Stew

THE BOWL THAT CAPTURES THE SOUL OF ITALIAN COOKING

We often think of Italy as the land of luxury goods from Prada and Maserati, but in the kitchen, simplicity and frugality rule. When it comes to turning modest ingredients into memorable dishes few cuisines can compete. Tuscan bean stew is the epitome of this thrifty tradition.

The people of Tuscany are known as mangiafagioli, or “bean eaters,” for the prominent role beans play in their cuisine. Cannellini (white kidney beans) are the region’s most famous legume, and Tuscan cooks take great care when preparing them. The traditional method calls for putting the dried beans and water in an empty wine bottle and slow-cooking them overnight in a fire’s dying embers. Not only is this method energy- and cost-efficient, but it also yields beans that are especially creamy.

Cooking beans in a wine flask isn’t practical but luckily a low-temperature oven works nearly as well. And using a Dutch oven means you can sauté vegetables and a little pancetta to build a strong flavor base for the stew.

But there’s a part of the original Italian technique that’s worth borrowing—the overnight time frame. We’re not suggesting you cook the beans overnight. Even at the lowest setting, your oven runs too hot. However, to produce the creamiest beans possible, we recommend salt-soaking the beans for at least 8 hours. The salt tenderizes the skins so the beans can expand to accommodate the swelling starches inside without bursting.

And if you want a thicker stew, just use the back of a spoon to press some of the cooked beans against the side of the pot right before serving. This way you control the thickness of this Italian dish with humble roots and luxurious flavor.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Build a Rich Flavor Base

Sauté pancetta (salt-cured bacon) in olive oil, then add aromatics (onion, celery, carrots, and lots of garlic), all of which will lend the stew savory depth.

Cut the Water with Broth

While you could make this stew with all water (as Tuscans often do), we use a mix of chicken broth and water for a richer, more flavorful stew.

Go Slow and Steady

Brining the beans softens their skins so they take less time to cook (see “A Better Way to Soak Dried Beans” for more information). Avoid cooking the beans on the stovetop—the agitation of the simmering water will result in beans that blow out. Instead, bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot, and slide it into a low oven (250 degrees) to cook gently for 1¼ to 1¾ hours—the beans will emerge creamy and intact. (Exact timing depends on the variety and age of the beans.)

Add Greens and Tomatoes Later

If added at the outset, the kale will become limp and gray. Add the greens later in the cooking process to preserve their color. And wait to add the tomatoes because their acidity will prevent the beans from softening.

Steep and Discard Rosemary

The flavor of rosemary can quickly become medicinal. Rather than mincing the rosemary and adding it with the aromatic vegetables, steep a sprig in the finished stew for 15 minutes—this infuses the broth with a delicate, not overpowering, herbal aroma.

Think Outside the Crouton

Another classic Italian bean soup, ribollita, is thickened with bread. You won’t need to thicken this stew with bread, but consider ladling it on top of thick slices of toasted country bread to make a more substantial meal.

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For optimal texture, soak the beans in salted water and wait to add the acidic tomatoes.

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Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew

SERVES 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 8 to 24 hours to salt-soak beans
  • 20 minutes to prepare pancetta and vegetables
  • 30 minutes to build stew base on stovetop
  • 1½ hours to simmer stew in oven (add greens and tomatoes when beans are almost tender)
  • 15 minutes to infuse stew with rosemary and season

Essential Tools

  • Dutch oven with lid

Substitutions & Variations

  • If pancetta is unavailable, substitute four slices of bacon.
  • Quick-Salt-Soak Method: Place rinsed beans in large heatproof bowl. Bring 8 cups water and 3 tablespoons salt to boil. Pour water over beans and let them sit for 1 hour. Drain and rinse beans well before proceeding with step 2.
  • Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew with Sausage and Cabbage: Substitute 1½ pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed, for pancetta; ½ head savoy cabbage, cut into 1-inch pieces, for kale; and 1 sprig fresh oregano for rosemary. Cook sausage in oil in step 2, breaking into small pieces with wooden spoon until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Transfer sausage to paper towel–lined plate and place in refrigerator. Proceed with recipe as directed, stirring sausage and cabbage into stew along with tomatoes in step 3.

We prefer the creamier texture of beans soaked overnight for this recipe. If you’re short on time, use our quick-salt-soak method.

  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 pound (2½ cups) dried cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 6 ounces pancetta, cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 2 celery ribs, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 pound kale or collard greens, stemmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 8 slices country white bread, 1¼ inch thick, broiled until golden brown on both sides and rubbed with garlic clove (optional)
  1. Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
  2. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 250 degrees. Heat oil and pancetta in Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pancetta is lightly browned and fat has rendered, 6 to 10 minutes. Add onion, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 16 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in broth, 3 cups water, bay leaves, and soaked beans. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Cover pot, transfer to oven, and cook until beans are almost tender (very center of beans will still be firm), 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  3. Remove pot from oven and stir in kale and tomatoes. Return pot to oven and continue to cook until beans and greens are fully tender, 30 to 40 minutes longer.
  4. Remove pot from oven and submerge rosemary in stew. Cover and let stand 15 minutes. Discard bay leaves and rosemary and season stew with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, use back of spoon to press some beans against side of pot to thicken stew. Serve over toasted bread, if desired, and drizzle with olive oil.

VEGETARIAN HEARTY TUSCAN BEAN STEW

Omit pancetta, substitute 3 cups vegetable broth for chicken broth, and increase water to 4½ cups. Microwave ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms with ½ cup water in covered bowl until steaming, about 1 minute. Let stand until mushrooms soften, about 5 minutes. Drain mushrooms in fine-mesh strainer lined with coffee filter, reserve liquid, and mince mushrooms. Stir mushrooms and reserved liquid into broth in step 2.

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