Today, I’d like to share with you a wonderfully simple dish with roots in Tuscany.
Beans and tuna (fagioli e tonno) or beans with tuna (fagioli al tonno), it is the cannellini beans with top billing, always at center stage.
Usually offered as a salad in English cookbooks, I discovered a recipe using big handfuls of herbs and giving it a main dish place at the table and I fell in love.
Like my Pasta e Fagioli Soup, I started learning with an old recipe. Beautiful for its simplicity: beans, tuna, ripe tomatoes, sage leaves, and garlic. Be generous with fresh pepper. The rest is left to us. Everything done to taste. Often, I see onions, particularly red ones, used in this mix as well.
John Thorne, in Pot on the Fire, reminisces about simply beans, oil, garlic, and sage cooking in a Chianti bottle set in the embers of a brazier. The thought of the beloved Tuscan peasant trinity (olive oil, garlic, and sage) left to lazily swirl around a slow-cooking pot of cannellini beans on the back of the stove made me anxious to start cooking right away.
Marcella Hazan, for a similar recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, calls for 1 seven-ounce can imported tuna packed in olive oil. I totally get that.
I found just such a can (or a tin, if you will) not long ago in a gourmet grocery. More than twice the cost of our normal brand! This one from Spain. And I gathered some Supper Club Irregulars around the kitchen table and we passed it around reverently to each other, carefully tasting with a small fork, and it was that good. Not practical, granted, but wow.
When someone tastes a food and reflexively closes their eyes while they savor it, holy spatula drop, make note.
From 1950 – 2000, in the U.S., canned tuna was the number one consumed seafood. Now it’s shrimp, but tuna’s still in second place. Of course, a can of tuna went from 7 ounces to 6 to the 5 it is today during that time. And the price went up. So, it’s not as much the rent week bargain convenience food it was once but it’s still reasonable.
But, hey, I grew up watching Charlie the Tuna in the Star-Kist commercials. Today, I only buy the sustainable and wild-caught brands. Read those labels. #realfood
I like to use an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven for this dish. The original recipe used both a pot and a skillet, but I didn’t think it was necessary.
Cannellini beans are a white kidney bean. They have a creamy texture (when cooked, of course) which generously accepts other surrounding flavors in the dish. If you must make a substitution, then try great northern beans (like I did today) before you fall back to navy beans.
The dried beans are important because they’ll cook slowly in a big handful of fresh-picked sage leaves, a tablespoon of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, and covered by water three inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, and off you go.
By the time it’s done, the sage leaves will be wisps of what they were, almost dissolved, but the flavor will permeate the beans – not to mention the entire house and a few steps down the sidewalk.
When you can get the mailman to ask what’s cooking, score yourself two points.
By the way, unless your dried beans are very old, there’s no need to pre-soak them. I know, that’s not what Grandma said, so if it makes you feel better, you do you. But the jury is in on this one – it makes no appreciable difference and just takes more time.
Give them a good rinse at the start and a quick inspection to ensure no debris has found its way into your hill of beans. (That’s right, a hill of beans is the collective. Like a murder of crows or a hassle of project managers.)
The beans will take about two hours. Unless you’re taking photographs like I was, you can prep the rest while they cook.
Peel your tomatoes next. A few minutes in boiling water, a minute in an ice water bath, and they should peel easily.
Seed them. Then dice.
Once your beans are tender, drain them in a colander. (I’ve told you before about my small foods favorite.)
Add the rest of the oil and the whole garlic cloves. Let that cook for a minute or three until the garlic is browned but not burned, then discard the garlic.
Okay, I’m with you, when I read that my eyes got real big, my head shook side-to-side slowly, I hate discarding food like that. So, I spread it on crusty bread and noshed while I cooked. Chef’s advantage. But the recipe said discard.
(Like Marcella’s tomato sauce recipe where she discards an entire onion. Not in my kitchen, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Funny enough, I read where her son can’t either and in his cookbook he grates the onion into the sauce.)
CAREFULLY AND AWAY FROM YOU, add the tomatoes. Hot oil splatter happens and it’s painful.
Another pinch of salt and let it cook ten minutes until most of the water boils off, the raw taste of tomatoes is gone, and everything is tender.
Add the basil and the beans, stir well, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and let it cook for 10 more minutes. Stir it now and then.
Cut the heat, stir in the flaked tuna, generously grind some black pepper over it, stir again, and taste. Adjust for salt if you feel strongly about it.
Fagioli e Tonno
Fagioli e Tonno (beans and tuna) is a savory, satisfying, and nourishing dish from Tuscany. Serve warm or room temperature, it’s delicious either way.
- 1½ cups dried white cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Salt to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2½ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- ¼ cup loosely packed finely chopped fresh basil leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 6-ounce cans tuna packed in olive oil
Rinse the beans and make sure there's no debris.
In a big pot, put the beans, sage, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a good pinch of salt, and cover with about 3 inches of water.
Bring the contents to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Let cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 hours or until the beans are at the desired tenderness.
Drain the beans and set aside.
Turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the rest of the olive oil and let it heat up.
Add the crushed garlic cloves and let them brown for a minute or two. Do not let them burn. Remove from the pan and discard.
CAREFULLY add the chopped tomatoes and another good pinch of salt. Let these cook for about 10 minutes or until they are tender and most of the water has evaporated. Stir enough to keep them from burning.
Add the chopped basil and the beans and sage leaves from earlier. Generously grind black pepper to taste. Stir well.
Reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan. Let cook for another 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the flaked tuna.
Serve warm or at room temperature as a main dish or a side.