When people raised around the Mediterranean are far from home, it is the bean dishes they remember with longing. A simple, brothy bowl of white beans with a cruet of extra virgin olive oil can practically make a Tuscan cry. To a Frenchman, a grandmother’s cassoulet has no equal for sheer pleasure in all the Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy.
Dry beans may be the humblest of foods, but the dishes made with them can touch us deeply. They can’t be rushed, so they remind us that someone took time to please us. They demonstrate ingenuity and, often, the ability to make a lot with a little. Through watchful cooking and deft seasoning — as minimalist as olive oil, garlic, sea salt and parsley — Mediterranean cooks know how to make dry beans craveable.
In Provence, lamb shanks with white beans capture all the flavors of that sun-drenched region, with seasonings that include rosemary, thyme and savory. In some preparations, the braised shanks are served on top of the beans. Other cooks remove the braised meat from the shanks, stir it into the cooked beans, and then apply a breadcrumb topping to make a crusty gratin.
The reputation of fabada, probably Spain’s best-known bean dish, extends far beyond the Asturias region that is its home base. Asturian cooks use large dry white beans for this rustic dish, which includes sausages, smoked pork, slab bacon and paprika. In Galicia, the beloved caldo Gallego incorporates white beans, beef, potatoes, turnips and kale in a hearty one-pot soup.
Travel to Tuscany and every nonna (grandmother) will boast about her ribollita, a rib-sticking bean soup made with yesterday’s minestrone and stale bread. Italian bean soups embrace whatever the garden and market provide, such as fresh fennel, chestnuts, winter squash, mushrooms, mustard greens, cabbage or carrots.
In Greece, cooked navy beans figure in refreshing summer salads (fasoulosalata) with capers, red onion and arugula. Often the garlicky beans are pureed for a meze (appetizer), garnished with capers, thinly slivers of red onion and good olive oil. Fat white beans known as gigantes (Great Northern beans could substitute) are oven-baked with olive oil, tomato, oregano and honey. For a riff on the popular Greek salad, mix canned kidney beans or white beans with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, feta, dried oregano, and vinaigrette.