30 June 2016

That is a must

“Wait, wait, I still can't believe it – and the phone hasn't rung before that in years?” I shout, incredulous, over the jet engines, stressing and drawing out 'e' in 'years'.

We are close to a runway, planes are taking off. I squint then raise my eyebrows and repeat what I just said, but my pitch is no rival to the taxying jumbo jet, so I wait before Anthony can hear me again. On the far side of the runway a plane lifts itself off ground, the jumbo jet is next.

“My father said it hasn't, no. Not a single phone call, not a single text message for the last eight years, since his retirement from the police force in fact – it used to be his work phone.” We are cycling side by side, towards a course of tall trees down the narrow road. The plan is to drop the bikes somewhere there, Anthony stretches out his arm to point, and watch the planes sprawled out on the grass in the cooling shadow. In the event of peckish-ness we've got a bag each of tortilla and ridged potato chips.

We had lunch at home before the ride: thick unapologetic sourdough toasts with bean confit, impossibly good and addictive. I placed the beans on top of the toast and smashed them gently with a fork. The best part is never the soft plump fragrant beans but the richly flavoured (garlic and herbs) olive oil that has to be mopped up off the plate, and then from the bottom of the pot, that is a must, it's non-negotiable. When we reach for the pot with the remaining beans, more bread is required, more hunks of moist and yielding sourdough crumb. We killed that sourdough loaf (a boule), the kitchen table surface is covered with the oily fingerprints and the floor with the crust shards, these prick the skin under my feet as I walk towards the sink to wash my hands and mouth.

There is a cold six-pack of Heineken with us in the rucksack, in the event of thirst.

I press my hands to my ears and the jumbo jet's roaring softens and sounds like seashells. A magic trick – physics. Airborne, it starts to look like a white ink dot.

“But when did you hear about this?”

A tractor chugs by, turns down a farmer's field across the road.

“We talked last night when you were asleep.”

We have recently gotten back from a two-week trip to Southern Russia. Where my mother filled our plates with the tenderest of cutlets and the tastiest of stuffed bell peppers, my father poured us birch sap vodka, my uncle took us well past midnight to a roadside cafe where they caught and grilled for us a whole carp, my grandmother made for us her signature Don Cossacks fish stew and fluffiest piroshki with stewed cabbage or chicken mince. There, from my old room, Anthony skyped with his parents in the States. And then his father's unused phone rang.

He couldn't tell if the woman on the phone was Russian, but she did sound Eastern European, he said.”

And what did she say?” I ask and follow the jumbo jet with my right eye, then with the left.

She wanted to know if he worked for an American company or the government. Hu aar u, she said. I'm Ron, said my dad.”

Bean Confit
Source: “The Temporary Vegetarian” series, from The New York Times
Yield: 2–4 servings

As far as which fresh herbs to use, it's completely to taste and adaptable. Originally, these are rosemary and oregano, but I like to sub rosemary for thyme, for instance, and when I had neither thyme nor oregano but only basil in my fridge, I used basil then and it was great.

But what beans to use, it's strict. Not as in what sort of white bean matters (that's also adaptable and a subject of taste), but how old they are. Old dried beans will take forever to cook, salt or no salt. If possible, use Rancho Gordo dried beans, those are the best (but sadly, not available in Europe, which is why I sometimes ask Ron for a shipment.)

100 g (½ cup) dried cranberry beans, Italian white beans, or other white beans
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig oregano
2 cloves garlic
375 ml (1 ½ cups) extra virgin olive oil

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water.

In a heavy ovenproof pot, combine the beans and 1 liter (4 cups) fresh cold water. Put over high heat and bring to a boil, then scale the heat down to low. Simmer gently, uncovered, until moderately tender, 30-45 minutes, or longer if needed (beans can take from one to three hours to cook). Do not boil or stir to prevent the beans from breaking into pieces or the bean skins to separate from the beans. As the beans cook, check periodically for water, adding hot water as necessary to keep the beans covered with liquid by at least a fingertip.

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit). Drain the beans, then return them to the pot and add the fresh herbs and garlic. Cover with the oil. Place in the oven, and cook uncovered until the beans are completely tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool and season to taste with salt. For best flavour, allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight or up to seven days.

To serve, gently reheat the beans and serve with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pot (reuse the flavoured oil for various dressings or a vinaigrette, OR mop it up with good bread!). Serve warm, and crushed, on top of toast, or mixed in with rice or farro.