“Poverty was my best teacher” was what I used to tell people who asked how I learned to cook. While I was in grad school for seven years I not only became a vegetarian (primarily for economical reasons) but I also spent a year on food stamps. Despite my lack of financial resources and because I was an academic I read books to learn how to make staples instead of buying them. I quickly realized that making your bread, quiche crusts and beans was much cheaper than buying the prepared versions. I came to recognize that not only did I love the break from studying that cooking gave me but my academic researcher side loved exploring how to make basics like mustard, BBQ sauce and other assorted foods that I never thought to think that someone once made instead of buying it at a store.
White beans were the first beans that I fell in love with and when I was looking around for a bean stew for the hot bar at the co-op deli that I worked at, this sage and sausage one jumped out at me. I love that the meat and the vegetables are all supporting elements for enhancing the white beans and don’t overpower them. If you want to make this vegetarian, add about a teaspoon of toasted fennel seeds or some fresh chopped fennel to bring that flavor that would have been part of the sausage.
Tuscan White Beans with Sausage and Sage
1 1/2 cups white beans with liquid* (or 15oz can of beans)
2 Sweet Italian Sausage, raw
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 carrot, diced
1/2 celery stalk, diced
1 large tomato, cored and diced
1 bay leaf
3-4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
Squeeze sausage out of its casing in teaspoon amounts in sauce pan and cook over medium heat until sausage is all browned. Add onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add carrots and celery and cook another 4-5 minutes. Add white beans with liquid and mix well and cook another 4-5 minutes. Add tomato, bay leaf and sage and stir well. Bring to low boil and then reduce to simmer and cook another 20 minutes until mixture begins to meld. Add at least 1 teaspoon salt and possibly more since beans take a lot of salt. Add pepper to taste.
*Soaking and Cooking Dry Beans
If you plan in advance you can make your own beans, which is not only cheaper to buy bulk beans but also easier to digest when you soak them and then boil them. I usually soak the beans in at least 2 inches of water to cover them and a piece of kombu, which is a flat seaweed that is used to make Dashi, Japanese broth used in miso soup. I soak the beans for 8-12 hours (usually overnight) in a deep casserole dish that can go from the stovetop to the oven.
I learned to make beans by bringing them to a boil on top of the stove and then placing them in a preheated oven at 325 degrees and cooking them covered for 45-60 minutes, depending on the bean. For white beans, it takes about 45 minutes. If you don’t have this kind of casserole dish, you can simply bring the beans to a boil and then reduce to simmer and cover and cook on the stovetop, they’ll be just as good. When you bring the beans to a boil, they will usually create some foam that rises as the boiling happens. Skim off the foam and reduce to simmer or place in the oven covered to cook.