Bean Demonstration by Chef Cesare Casella at the International Culinary Center
On Tuesday, I took advantage of having a free afternoon to take in a culinary demonstration at the International Culinary Center given by Dean of Italian Studies Cesare Casella. The topic was beans – how to cook them and some of the Italian dishes that you can make using them. Along with tips as to how to cook beans perfectly, Chef Casella interwove his recipes with stories about growing up in Tuscany, where beans are a staple dish. (Tuscans are sometimes referred to as mangiafagioli or “bean-eaters.”)
To acclimate our tastebuds to how properly cooked beans should taste and feel, Chef Casella presented us each with a plate of cooked beans prepared without oil or salt to start the demonstration. We had – moving counter clockwise from the right – chickpeas (ceci), fagioli toscanelli, corona beans, fagioli stregoni, fagioli del Papa (which have a chestnut-like flavor), and Italian cannellini beans. Each of them were solid (i.e., not mushy) and tender to the bite with the skin also breaking down easily when chewed. Bags of these beans can be found for sale on Chef Casella’s website dedicated to showcasing heirloom products from Italy.
“Cooking the beans is important,” he advised us. Because of the chemicals in the water and its hardness, he prefers to use filtered or spring water when preparing beans. Beans take time and care to cook properly, he instructed. “The perfect way to cook the beans is for a very long time.” Steps like soaking them, cleaning, them, and then cooking them slowly are key steps in the process. After letting them soak in warm water for about half an hour, gently rub them together to release more dirt from them. Then, drain them, and put them in a stockpot or Dutch oven. Cover them with cold water, and let them soak for at least 6 hours (better overnight). If it is warm outside, put the beans in the refrigerator to soak, so that they don’t ferment in the heat. Drain the beans and put them in a pot and cover them with fresh, cold water. Cook them in simmering water until they are done (times will vary depending upon the size of the beans).
Aside from the tip about the kind of water that he uses to cook his beans, another tidbit Chef Casella imparted to us is that he always makes a vegetable sachet to put into the cooking pot with the beans, just as his grandmother and mother did. He puts together carrots, celery, onion, garlic, rosemary, and sage into a cheesecloth and includes it with the cooking liquid. (The cheesecloth makes it easier to remove everything at the end of the cooking time without have to fish around for bits of vegetables and herbs.) All the items should be cleaned, trimmed, and peeled in the case of the carrots and onions so that no dirt gets onto the beans and into the cooking liquid. This combination of ingredients is based upon his own personal preference, he added, so you need to discover the mix that works best for your tastes. The base, however, should be neutrally-flavored, not over-powering, which is why pepper isn’t usually included in the sachet. He did also toss in a couple of pinches of salt, which he said is fine to do at the cooking stage.
Never throw away the liquid in which the beans have been cooked, he told us. This is “liquid gold,” and can be added to dishes for cooking or finishing them, as in the case of making farro risotto-style (farrotto) as he did during the demonstration (photo below). He also said that it isn’t necessary to skim the top of the beans to remove the bubbling residue as they cook, as that also affects the final flavors. One student in the audience asked about how to reduce gassiness that some folks have from eating beans. Chef Casella said one method is to change the cooking water, but this has consequences for achieving their full flavor: “Less farty, you change the water; you want more flavor, you keep the water.”
When it came time to taste the results of Chef Casella’s cooking, it was clear how this attention to detail and precise cooking methodology produced delicious and intensely flavorful results. The Seven Bean Salad had the beans that we tasted in the opening exercise plus the addition of Tuscan lentils, which added a meaty, hearty note to the dish. Beans are very starchy, he told us, so when making a salad like this one that uses olive oil with the beans, be prepared to add a lot of oil to the salad. As we watched him pour a steady, green stream of oil over the beans, I wondered if it would taste really greasy at the end. It didn’t at all. As he promised, the oil was mostly absorbed into the beans, given them a lush texture. The salad had a lightness and freshness that called out for a slab of grilled, freshly-baked Tuscan bread and a glass of local wine to round it out.
The next dish we tried, was a clear example of how using the bean cooking water helps to build the layers of flavor, taste, and texture on a plate. Farro is a wonderful, nutty grain that can be used in many recipes. In this one for farrotto, Chef Casella took the liquid in which the cannellini beans were cooked and added ladlefuls of it to the farro to develop a creamy, risotto-like texture. The final dish, which we were given to taste, had a rich depth and levels of flavor to it with the al dente grains, tender beans, chunks of smoky bacon, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs.
A traditional Tuscan dish of Stewed Beans with Tomatoes was the third plate that Chef Casella gave to us to try at the demonstration. During the part of the talk about cooking methods, the chef had cautioned us about adding acidity to the water, as it would make the beans tough. In this dish, the tomatoes are combined with the beans only after they are finished cooking, along with some of the liquid from the beans.
As I polished off my plate, sopping up the last of the tomatoe-y broth with a bit of bread, I was transported for a moment back to my travels in Italy. I could almost have been at a long, communal table in an historic trattoria in Florence after having wandered around the cities tourist attractions, enjoying a meal with my friends, instead of sitting in a chair in the auditorium at the International Culinary Center. This demonstration was very informative about the variety not just of the beans themselves but also their flexibility in preparation, which is what has made them such a staple in many cultures and cuisines. It made me realize that I need to consider using them more often in my own cooking projects.