Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cooking for Couples, Pt. 1

As a man in his late twenties, it's inevitable that most of my friends are in relationships, or married. You get used that, yet it becomes difficult to hang out with one part of the whole, absent some designated 'boy's night out' thing, which leads to someone's partner asking, "What do y'all do when you're alone, anyway?" 

Well, I'm not telling; I might get my bro-man card pulled, and then where does that leave me? Fortunately for yours truly, most of my buddies' significant others are pretty damned awesome, and a blast to be around. Of course there are exceptions, but I'm all about setting expectations, and managing the exceptions. This leads to a healthy lifestyle, free of conflict with your friend's lovers whom you cannot stand to be around. You know who you are, you swine!

Anyway, I've seemed to cook a handful of meals this month for some of these dynamic duos. Last weekend after softball practice, I had Jim Jam and the beloved Cici over for dinner. This particular couple happen to be a great match, fun to play with, and overall badasses. They had me over for dinner on New Year's Day, so it was time to repay the favor. Cici is an art grad-student, and Jim Jam is a musician, and co-worker of mine at the Wheats; good people. 

Ain't they cute?

I wanted to do something that I could prepare ahead of time, and simply reheat after softball. I decided to braise some oxtail, and make some Tuscan bean stew. In order to serve up 'perfect' beans, free of explosions or cracked skins, I used a technique that in theory would simmer slow and low enough to avoid such annoyances. Unfortunately, I failed to take into account that the beans I was using had a shorter cooking time than the beans suggested in the recipe that I was basing this meal on. The end result was still delicious, but a few beans went the way of the Challenger. So. Be. It. Lesson learned. 

We started this meal off with a nice Prosecco and salumi plate of mortadella, spicy sopresseta, and olives stuffed with feta or sun-dried tomato courtesy of Mandola's. This was followed by a simple salad straight from the garden, topped of by a traditional balsamic vinaigrette. After reheating and shredding the oxtail, it was time to serve up the bean stew. The flavors of the stew were complimented nicely by the oxtail; Old World flavors of salty pork and rosemary marrying the sweet, red wine and thyme infused beefiness of the braise. Simple and delicious, just like me. We enjoyed a nice, big, dry Ruffino Aziano 2006 Chianti Classico with our main; a well crafted Tuscan red to sip while eating food inspired by the same region.

Gotta love that kitchen lighting!

An island of oxtail amid a stormy sea of gastronomical delights...

Since you've been such a good reader this year, here is a recipe for you. Sorry, no braise for you!

Tuscan Bean Stew

1 lb dried canellini, great northern, or navy beans*, rinsed and picked over
1 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
6 oz pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice (use bacon if pancetta is not available)
1 large onion, chopped medium
2 medium celery ribs, 1/2-inch dice
2 medium carrots, peeled, and cut into 1/2 inch dice
8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4 cups of chicken or beef stock
3 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 bunch of lacinato kale, or collards, stemmed, and chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 14.5 can/package of diced tomatoes, drained and rinsed
1 sprig fresh rosemary
ground pepper, and salt as needed
crusty bread

Dissolve 3 tablespoons of salt in 4 quarts cold water in a large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 250ยบ. Heat oil and pancetta in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pancetta is lightly browned and fat has rendered, 6 to 10 minutes. Add onion, celery, and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 16 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in stock, water, bay leaves, and soaked beans. Increase heat to high and bring to a simmer. Cover pot, transfer to oven, and cook until beans are almost tender (center still firm), 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove pot from oven and stir in tomatoes and greens. Return pot to oven and cook until beans are fully tender, 30 or 40 minutes longer. Remove pot from oven and submerge rosemary sprig in stew. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes. Discard bay leaves, and rosemary and season the stew with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle bowls with olive oil; serve with parmesan and crusty bread. Mangia! 

*Reduce cooking time if using navy beans, they are smaller and less dense than cannellini. 

Beans are finicky and may have adverse reactions to salt and acids. Some think that adding salt too early causes the beans to never fully soften, others think that adding salt too early causes the beans to be mushy. Same with the acids. Texture and tenderness of the beans seem to be affected most by salt, this is mostly due to the swelling of the starch granules within their tender husks, resulting in mealy or gritty beans. The skins also are affected, often resulting in bean skins that are thick and chewy, which doesn't contrast well with the creamy, tender innards. Brining the beans doesn't affect them the same way as adding salt to the cooking liquid. The skins stay soft, and the insides get tender; life is good. The slow simmer in the oven is meant to reduce the number of vigorous bubbles in the pot during the cooking time. A vigorous stovetop simmer is the usual suspect in the case of burst beans. I used navy beans--which are kinda small--so I had a few beans burst, but overall I got what I wanted. Enjoy this on a cold day, with loved ones, or at least someone and their loved one. 


PassivePastry said...

Lucky CiCi..... I lover her so.
When are we going to have the single people meal?
or the blogger brunch?

Flapjacks said...

soon, i'm a busy man, ya know...?

Ashley said...


TexasDeb said...

I'd never had the mystery of tough bean skins sleuthed out before - thanks for that.

The Tuscan Bean Stew still worthwhile if you don't have oxtail to float in it? Sounds pretty main course on its own, even without a braise to add in. You think?

Flapjacks said...

yeah, it's rather hearty. I actually dropped that adjective from the recipe title. you should totally make some. if you want a more substantial meal, serve it over toasted crusty bread. with lots of olive oil and parmesan.

marisalauren said...

so, because i'm not "one part of a whole" *and* i don't eat meat, i don't expect to be invited over anytime soon for dinner... thanks for swad, though. that was nice.

and yes, cecelia and jimmy are lovely.

Flapjacks said...

damn. don't be all bitter and shit...

Folks who Follow this Blog