Italian-style beans and greens
When the weather starts to get a bit gloomy, and the temperature drops, the only thing I want to eat is a big bowl of these cozy beans and greens over soft, creamy polenta. Growing up, this was the ultimate comfort food dish on chilly fall and winter days. Walking into my grandparent's house after school, I could smell the beans simmering away, and I instantly felt warm, even if I was still shivering from being outside. Stewed beans and braised greens are a staple of the type of southern Italian cuisine known as cucina povera, or “peasant food,” I grew up with. A big piece of crusty bread (or two!) is a fine accompaniment, but this dish is a match made in heaven with polenta. The broth flows over the polenta, and the creamy beans are perfectly matched with velvety, cheesy polenta.
Cranberry beans, also called Borlotti beans in Italian circles, are the most traditional bean for this dish. However, I grew up eating it with Cannellini beans more often than not, as cranberry beans were difficult to find. Either bean cooks up creamy and delicious, so go with whatever you like best. Escarole is the traditional green usually used in this recipe, but Italian cooking, especially cucina povera, is about using what you have. So, if Tuscan kale is what’s available to you, go with that. A combination of greens can be delicious too; the difference in flavor and texture is inviting, and it’s a great way to use up whatever bits and pieces of greens you have on hand. Kale, chard, dandelion greens, mustard greens, or any other dark, leafy green work well. That being said, if you’re able to get your hands on some escarole, I highly recommend using it. The flavor and texture are perfect with the starchy beans, and escarole is just made for braising.
– Alex DeSimone, food writer & recipe developer
- 1⁄2 pound Cannellini or Cranberry beans
- 1 white onion
- 1 carrot
- 2 stalks celery
- Handful parsley
- 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
- Parmigiano Reggiano rind (optional, but highly recommended)
- 3 cloves garlic
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 bunch greens of choice (escarole, Tuscan kale, chard, etc), torn into ribbons
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- For serving: creamy polenta or crusty bread, good olive oil, grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Rinse beans and place in a large saucepan, covering beans in roughly 1 1⁄2 to 2 inches water, about 4 cups. Salt liberally. Halve the onion, add one half to the pot, and set the other half aside. Cut carrot and celery in half, then add to beans. Tuck the Parm rind in (if using), add a handful of parsley (stems and all), and top with 2 tbsp olive oil. Simmer over low heat with the pot partially covered for 1 1⁄2 to 3 hours, depending on the bean. Start checking for doneness after 1 hour. Stir occasionally and monitor the water level, adding more to keep the beans covered.
Once the beans are cooked through, turn off the heat and cover with a lid. Set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil over medium-low heat in a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Meanwhile, dice the remaining half of the onion. Once oil is shimmering, add in red pepper flakes and onion. Saute for 5-7 minutes and then add garlic, sauteing for an additional 2-3 minutes. Increase heat to medium and add in greens, seasoning with salt and pepper. Toss greens to thoroughly coat them in onion and oil mixture. Saute for 3-4 minutes, using tongs to continually move the greens around to avoid burning the onion and garlic.
Carefully ladle two scoops of bean liquid into the pot with your greens, taking care not to add any beans. Braise greens with the lid on for 20-25 minutes over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, remove veggies, Parm rind, and easily accessible parsley from beans. Remove the lid from the greens and give them a good stir. Add in lemon juice and toss, sauteing for 3-5 minutes as some liquid evaporates.
Combine beans and remaining liquid with greens, stirring to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve over polenta or with crusty bread. Garnish with a glug of good olive oil and a mountain of grated Parm.