Last weekend as N. and I headed to the grocery store, we hadn’t yet started thinking about the weather forecast, which called for unseasonably low nighttime temperatures and – gasp – even a smattering of that fluffycold white stuff they get in “Northerly” climates. And yet, despite that, my menu plan ended up full of beans, Nature’s little warmer-uppers. We wanted chili. We wanted my aunt Nancy’s slow cooker baked beans. Even the Bittman pick of the week featured beans:
“58. Pour a mixture of cooked white beans (with a little cooking or canning liquid) and grated, sauteed winter squash into an oiled baking dish. Mix together fresh bread crumbs, dots of butter and chopped fresh sage and spread over the top; broil until golden brown.”
It was like we were physically attuned to the impending chill, though not mentally aware of it. “Use pantry food!” my subconscious suggested, “Canned foods don’t go bad! Stock up on canned foods!” And when Snowmageddon came? A whisperfall of beautiful flakes… for a few hours at most. The inch or two that stacked up in our backyard over Wednesday night was gone by Thursday afternoon. The chance that classes on Friday might have to be canceled due to unsafe morning driving conditions was a quiet dream that faded as quickly as the snow.
2 15 oz. cans white kidney beans (or cannelini beans)
½ large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and grated (I used the grating tool on my food processor)
¼ of a sourdough baguette, a few days old, torn into pieces and splintered into crumbs in the food processor
4 TB. butter
1 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped (I didn’t have any fresh sage in the house, and I wasn’t about to venture out to the frosty back garden to see if my sage plant was even still alive)
salt and pepper to taste
After grating the squash, I tossed it into a large skillet with half the butter and plenty of salt and pepper, then sauteed until it was just starting to pick up some color from the bottom of the pan. I took it off the heat and mixed it in a large casserole dish with the two cans of beans, which I forgot to save any liquid from. While the squash warmed the beans a bit, I melted the remaining butter in a bowl and then dumped what amounted to probably almost 2 cups of bread crumbs into it, where I mixed them around with a fork and then my fingers to make sure everyone had some buttery goodness seeped in. I added the rosemary and a little pepper, then spread out a thick layer over the beans and squash.
Because the beans were still pantry-cold and I knew the broiling process would not sufficiently warm them, I stuck the casserole dish into the oven on its lowest setting while I got the rest of dinner working.
Chicken sausages were browning and blistering in a skillet while I blanched some green beans, and then had a brilliant idea. Why not pick up some of that greasy meaty leftover sludge on our veg? That stuff is almost more flavorful than the meat itself, which is why cooks and chefs are always advocating using it as a base for sauces. Quick, quick, quick, I grated about a teaspoon of lemon zest and one clove of garlic on my microplane, then dumped green beans, seasonings, and a few tablespoons of white wine into the same smoking skillet I’d just liberated the sausages from. While the beans wallowed in their hot tub treatment I slid the casserole under the broiler and amazingly, everyone was ready at about the same time.
The sausages were tasty, but they were storebought and nothing particularly special. The Bittman dish was good, and I’ll say more about that in a moment, but I cannot extol enough the virtues of these green beans! They were perfectly cooked – still slightly crisp to give your teeth something to play with, and scented by the sharpness of garlic, lemon, and the slightly acidic wine, which reduced to almost nothing in the minute and a half or so it was in the pan. And the browned bits from the bursting sausages gave the beans a richness they scarcely deserved. It was like those good restaurant vegetables: crisp and buttery because they are drenched in the stuff, but here it was the tiniest slick of fat distributed beautifully over half a pound of slender beans, giving them all the right flavors to awaken pretty much every kind of taste bud. So delicious.
As for the Bittman dish, it was a bit eclipsed by its green side. The butternut squash, seasoned well and sauteed gently before meeting its companion ingredients, was delicious. It was light and fresh, and combined with zucchini, carrots, potatoes, or parsnips (or any combination thereof), it would make wonderful latke-style shredded vegetable pancakes or hash browns. Perhaps because I neglected to save any canning liquid from the beans, the dish itself needed a binder. It was good, and our snow-fearing, protein-craving bodies ate big servings, but it needed something to become spectacular.
Addressing the leftovers a day or two later, I figured out what had to be done to elevate this dish. It needed green. It needed more complexity. It needed to cease being a side, but to become a casserole-type-main in its own right. It needed to be, if such a thing exists, a baked hash.
In a big serving bowl, I layered some fresh spinach, half a leftover sausage, chopped into small pieces, and plenty of the squash and bean mixture and heated them up together with a little bit of butter. Putting the spinach on the bottom helped it wilt under the heat of the other ingredients. This was the way to eat this dish. In the spinach, the beans found a flavor to sing harmony, and the sausage pieces added a saltiness the relatively bland beans and bread crumbs needed. We will have this again, but next time I will add chopped spinach, chard, or perhaps zucchini, and maybe some crumbled cooked pork sausage. Good things. Warming things. Warm bellies to stand against the snow. Even if it only lasts a few hours.