After a rather exhausting week of work, I came home last Friday and started working on the simplest of dinners, a bean gratin from Twelve Recipes that I’d been trying to make all week, halted by weariness and longer-than-anticipated days in each of my previous attempts. I planned to pair it with soft boiled eggs, sautéed greens and a pan of whatever veggies were lounging in the crisper, roasted until crispy and caramelized on the edges. There was a partial bottle of white wine in the refrigerator, a bonus payment left over from a natural wine event I’d helped out with that Wednesday, and there was another bottle of something red and French and light standing by. Home, finally.
So, naturally, while running a knife through a crusty, days-old loaf of Tartine bread, breaking it down on the way to breadcrumbs, simultaneously trying to listen well as Ben talked about his day, I sliced straight through my finger, too. And so it was that we ended up in the ER instead of cozy on the couch, where they sanitized and butterfly-bandaged me up, poked my arm with a tetanus shot for good measure and sent us home even more tired than before.
Truth be told, I’m fine—no stitches, even! But life, I tell you. It’s rough.
And this, of course, is why we gather at the table. It’s why we’re deeply comforted by simple things, like beans and breadcrumbs, so much less complicated than everything else we face from day to day. It’s the beauty of glasses of wine and slices of cake and everyday celebration and friends who laugh with you whether you’re winning or losing or just hanging on.
We made the dinner anyway. We were starving, after all. I tried to let Ben do everything knife or heat related, with marginal success, and the gratin was warming and comforting as all get out when we sat down with it at 10:30pm. I was pretty cranky and still rather shaken up, and Ben had passed the Point of No Return in the hunger department, so we certainly weren’t at our best. But as we filled our bellies with buttery beans mixed with earthy rosemary and crowned with crisp, savory crumbs, we were nourished and soothed—even more, I’m sure, than if the evening had gone as I’d planned.
On Monday morning, I volunteered with my team at Glide, serving breakfast to several hundred people over the course of two hours. They, too, were eager to be nourished, though most were hungry in a way I can’t possibly imagine. But watching these folks slide into seats next to both friends and strangers, it was clearer to me than ever that at our core, we’re all the same. We make do, feasting by whatever means we have. I was impressed with the dedication to flavor of the gentleman who brought his own salt and pepper shakers, the ingenuity of the diner who pulled a bottle of mustard out of his bag, the myriad of ways people paired together the simple items on the menu that day: grits, a hard boiled egg, sausage, a piece of bread, fruit, milk.
We are human, all of us, and we are hungry—for food and so much more. At the end of the day, a cut on the finger is a very small thing indeed, but everyone has some sort of pain that needs soothing. And, if you ask me, dinner is a mighty fine time for solace.
The recipes in Cal Peternell’s Twelve Recipes bring just the sort of consolation I find so essential. My friend Annaliese gifted me this book for my birthday a couple of weeks ago, and I have been devouring it ever since. It is full of wonderful cooking advice, simple recipes and abundant charm. Cal Peternell is the head chef at Chez Panisse, where he’s been cooking for nearly twenty years. The book was inspired by his desire to teach his sons to cook before leaving home, and it reads with the familial kindness and warmth you might expect of something with that origin, pushing readers toward confidence and creativity. The photos of the author, his wife and their three sons in their cheery Berkeley home, complete with long wooden table and mismatched napkins, and the illustrations etched by each member of the family certainly don’t hurt, either.
It’s fitting that the inimitable Samin Nosrat, also of the Chez Panisse ilk, dubbed January #beanmonth and has been singing the praises of beans all month long on her blog. I could not agree more with her sentiments about this incredible food, and I swear it’s not because I’m a vegetarian and don’t know where else to get protein (I do!). I love making a pot of beans over the weekend, then employing it to make soup, toast, salad, hummus-style dip, gratin and more throughout the week. This, of course, is what Peternell is encouraging, too, which brings us to this simple and oh-so-very-comforting dish.
Rustic Bean Gratin with Rosemary, or Bread on Beans
Adapted from Cal Peternell’s Twelve Recipes
Cannellini and Snowcap beans work nicely here, but most anything would be delicious. Substitute another herb for the rosemary if you like: sage, marjoram and thyme are similarly excellent choices. I like to pair this gratin with eggs (soft boiled, poached or fried) and sautéed greens. In the summer, Peternell suggests serving it with slices of tomato alongside, and I think that sounds divine. If you have extra crumbs, you won’t be sorry; sprinkle them over pasta and other dishes.
Stale loaf/slices of a good rustic bread
Cooked beans with their cooking liquid (about 3/4 cup per person)
Rosemary, finely chopped (optional)
Freshly cracked pepper
For the crumbs
Carve the crust off of the bread VERY CAREFULLY with a serrated knife and tear into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Grind coarsely in a food processor or blender, then toss in a bowl with plenty of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. The crumbs should be tasty and pretty oily, though not totally soaked. Spread onto a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 7 minutes. With a spatula, scoop the crumbs into a pile, stir them around, then spread them back out. Put the pan back into the oven for 5 minutes and repeat with the spatula. Keep baking and stirring until the crumbs are crisp and golden.
For the gratin
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the beans in a casserole dish with just enough of the cooking liquid that the beans on top are on dry land while those below are awash. If it seems to watery, mash some of the beans to thicken the mixture. Season with freshly cracked pepper and salt, if necessary, then stir in the rosemary.
If the beans are cold, bake them for 15 minutes, then sprinkle the crumbs on top and bake for another couple of minutes. If the beans are already hot, put the crumbs on from the start and bake away.