‘Sometimes it snows in April’: braised beans with greens

I didn’t think I’d get a chance to share this post before next winter, what with the sun coming out and all thoughts of food turning to asparagus and barbecues. But, suddenly, it’s really cold again and these beans are just what you need when the spring sunshine has deceived you into thinking that you don’t need a scarf and gloves and you come home with no feeling in your head or fingers…

The recipe comes from one of my favourite books of last year, the River Cottage A to Zone of those rare books that is written for everyone, both the cookbook geeks like me and those who just like to cook now and again. I have learnt more about ingredients, whether the everyday such as bicarbonate of soda or unusual fish such as gurnard, from its recipes than from any other book in the last few years. And this is a really good example of the sort of easygoing dish that it excels at.

These beans work brilliantly however or whenever you use them: as a simple, low-effort dinner, something you can either create from a few store-cupboard ingredients or, if you prefer, serve them as a side to a dressier main. As they are, they’re vegetarian and gluten-free, cheap and simple, the sort of food that needs to be eaten with a bowl and a spoon; with some slow-roast lamb, they become a really impressive dinner for friends.

I have made the recipe several times, both with dried beans (soaked overnight or all day) and tinned, with white haricot beans and borlotti (as per the photo), and the dried are infinitely better, if slower, so please do try using dried if you can. There’s no real extra work; if you have time to make a cup of tea in the morning, or even pour a glass of water, you have time to soak beans for dinner the same day: tip in bowl, cover with water; that’s it. If you have a few tins in the cupboard, and really can’t be bothered with soaking, adjust the recipe as follows: sauté the vegetables, add the drained and rinsed beans, add a little water to cover, heat through then stir in the greens.

Whichever version you go for, try them with this chilli oil which is, again, very simple, and like adult Ready Brek. You can also use pesto or, as per the photo, a mash-up of whatever herbs and oil you have to hand. I am off to soak some beans myself now, and put on another jumper…

Makes enough for 3-4 (depending on whether you eat them on their own or with other things)

Cupboard (or things you may already have)
½ head of garlic (cut the head across the ‘equator’), plus 2 more cloves
bay leaves, 2-3
extra-virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil, 4 tbsp
sea salt and black pepper

Shopping list
celery stalk
small piece of leek, about 10cm
250g dried beans (cannellini, borlotti or haricot) or about 500g tinned (sorry, that leaves you with leftovers; see, used dried!)
fresh thyme, large sprig
red chilli
hot smoked paprika, 1 tsp
spring greens or cabbage, 200g

How to
1. The night before, or in the morning of the day you plan to cook, put your beans in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soak.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C fan-assisted/gas 3.

3. Peel and chop the celery and carrot into 3-4 equal pieces, wash the leek if necessary, drain the beans and put them all into a large lidded casserole dish with the ½ head of garlic, bay and thyme and 1.2 litres of fresh water. Bring to the boil, skim the surface to remove any foam then boil hard for 10 minutes.

4. Cover, put in the oven and cook until the beans are tender but not soft or mushy (depending on how old your beans are, this might take anything from 30 minutes to 90; it’s usually taken about an hour in my experience). Keep an eye on them to check that they are not drying out and add more water if so (there should be about 5-10mm left at the end). And, if they are ready before you need them, then switch them off and gently reheat when you want to eat.

5. Meanwhile, make the oil. Finely chop the 2 cloves of garlic, deseed and finely chop the chilli and put them both in a small saucepan with the olive oil and paprika. Fry gently for 2 minutes, then take off the heat and leave to cool.

6. Finally, wash the greens, remove the thick stalks and bases then slice the leaves crossways into ribbons/strips. Once the beans are cooked, stir in the greens (push them down under the surface so that they are completely covered) and leave to cook for another 5 or so minutes, until the greens are tender/done to your liking.

7. Season the beans and greens with salt and pepper and serve with both the vegetables and cooking liquid, and a good splash of the oil.

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