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The art of so-called side dishes

Maybe it is a product of our time, a generational thing, or just a matter of pheromones, but I keep falling in love with vegetarians. I spent nine years in their camp, so perhaps I’m predisposed. I may dally with a meat-and-potatoes man, but fate has it that my love is meant for herbivores only. One might argue that my sample size of two is too small for statistical significance, but it’s all I intend to have, and that’s significant enough for me. The first man to win my cooing and swooning was a devout vegan with the bumper stickers to show for it, and together we lasted for three meatless—if occasionally buttery, and blissful—years. The second has, in the twenty-four years since his birth, not once eaten meat, but his palate has ventured farther than most ardent omnivores. I refer, of course, to my wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker. If push came to shove, I’d take him over a plate of sausage any day, and as you know, dear reader, that is saying a lot.

But no amount of love can change a cold, hard fact: the holidays are a lonely time to be a vegetarian. With a turkey here and a roost goose there, here a tenderloin, there a spiral-sliced ham, everywhere a canapé involving caviar or crustaceans, December can be a cold, mean month. There is Tofurky for the brave, but faced with such odds, the braver will abstain. There are mashed potatoes, breads, biscuits, and yams this way or that, but no matter how many starches on the plate, they do not a meal make. All too often, a table set around meat—as most holiday tables are—looks a little off-kilter when its fleshly centerpiece is removed. A well-stocked plate has an intrinsic balance, an organization that depends on a variety of flavors and textures, a nebulous something that lands softly but satisfyingly on the tongue. So while I am solidly a meat-eating girl, the love of a good vegetarian has taught me a keen respect for the art of so-called side dishes, the sides that make a main meat irrelevant. When I say side dish, I mean creamy, garlicky, herb-flecked white beans.

Though humble to the eye, this silky, lusty purée sings in the mouth. Unabashedly aromatic with garlic, olive oil, rosemary, and sage, it perfumes the entire kitchen with a warm and welcome mid-winter rush of fresh herbs. These beans have appeared at my family’s Christmas parties and its bat mitzvahs—a testament, one could say, to our interfaith gourmandism, but more accurately, to this purée’s universal appeal. On the plate, it plays well with pork, beef, or poultry but is sturdy enough to take center stage among herbivores, carnivores, and those in between. It’s good enough for the love of a good vegetarian, and as you know, dear reader, that is saying a lot.

Dreamy White Beans
Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven

These beans are wonderfully easy and effortless to make, requiring only the foresight to soak the beans a day ahead of time. As a side note, please forgive the recipe’s title; it is Mollie Katzen’s, not mine, and as Brandon notes, “She’s such a hippie.” Nonetheless, I owe her quite a debt of gratitude, and soon, you may too.

2 cups dried white beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 large rosemary sprigs
About 12 sage leaves, tied together with string
1 ½ Tbs minced fresh garlic
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving
Good-quality balsamic vinegar, for serving

Place the beans in a large pot, and cover them by 2 inches with cold water. Add the rosemary and sage, and bring the pot to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water boils, lower the heat slightly and maintain the pot at a simmer, skimming off any white foam that rises to the surface, until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, place a large bowl in the sink, and set a colander inside the bowl. When the beans are ready, remove the herbs, and drain the beans into the colander, reserving their cooking liquid in the bowl beneath.

Place the drained beans, garlic, salt, and a grind or two of pepper in the bowl of a food processor, add a ½ cup or so of the reserved cooking liquid, and process to puree, adding more liquid until the beans reach your desired consistency. You can make them fairly thick, like rustic mashed potatoes, or you can add more water to make them a thinner, spoonable puree. I like them somewhere in between.

Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Spoon the puree into a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and serve.

Yield: about 6 servings.


Blogger ilva said...

Wow, what else can I say?

11:47 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

What? He's a vegetarian? I had no idea! I've read your professions of love for sausages in the past, so man, this must really be love! ;)
oh and p.s. I LOVE white beans and the recipe sounds fabulous.

6:05 AM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

I'm with you Molly. I love veggies a lot more than meat. But my hbby is a meat and potatoes man so we compromise. We enjoy a bit of one another's food. Although my weakness lies with seafood, dairy and bacon:(

6:47 AM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Manne said...

Excellent writing, really interesting recipe. That will so end up on our xmas table this christmans. :)

8:16 AM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger kickpleat said...

I was a vegetarian for 10 years and tho it wasn't love that made me revert back to eating meat (it was a sausage!), I still have the vegetable love. And I still have all my hippy Katzen/Moosewood books and I'll definitely be making this recipe during the holidays!

8:56 AM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous Sher said...

I saw your picture of the white bean puree yesterday and I couldn't get it out of my mind. It's the best food photo I've ever seen. I could practically taste that dish!

Personally, I've always thought the turkey or roast is just a supporting player. It's all about the side dishes for me!

10:03 AM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous amydiane said...

Oh my dear, you know that me and my house will serve the vegetables... this one is right after my heart! Maybe I'll bring it as an extra dish for the Christmas meat-fest. :)

10:44 AM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

That's a fresh take on (side) dishes for me, I mean regarding holiday feasts. Dunno, just never would have thought of beans for Christmas. They look, uh... dreamy!
(I've met Mollie Katzen. She's so not a hippie -- anymore, at least.)
Nice photo of an unphotogenic dish.

2:36 PM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The butter!


5:25 PM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous lindy said...

Every year for some time now, I have been in charge of bringing to holiday events, a vegetarian dish which can serve as a main course for my vegetarian adult children, and as a side dish for the rest of the family.
This looks lovely.

Some other things that have worked very well are cauliflower cheese gratin (which is really great with roasted meat), butternut squash/hazelnut lasagna, and a mushroom/cabbage galette. I'm an omnivore myself, but I do love my veg.

7:10 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Ilva, this stuff leaves me pretty speechless too!

Michele, ma cherie, c'est vrai! He's a vegetarian, born and bred. He was raised entirely without meat and to this day has never tasted it--with the exception of a mislabeled samosa a few years ago and a few recent, experimental tastes of fish. But he's wonderfully understanding of my need for sausages and such, so I'm quite a lucky girl. And P.S. If you love white beans, my dear, dreamy white beans are made for you!

Foodiechickie, I do love my veggies, but these days--and it shocks me to say this--I love my meat almost as much! Only certain meats, of course, like sausages, roasted chicken, brisket, pulled pork, roasted pork, and well, apparently, I'm not so picky as I'd thought. I eat vegetarian about 80 percent of the time at home, though, so sharing a table with a vegetarian man is a pleasure. Sounds as though you and your hubby have the right idea!

Manne, thank you! Love the title of your blog, by the way.

Kickpleat, we sound like twins in our vegetarianism and its aftermath! Happy Katzening, and Merry Christmas to you.

Aw, Sher, thank you! I dare say that I think there is white bean puree in your near future...

Amy, my dear neighbor, I'd be honored to know that these beans graced your Christmas table. Hugs to you and N! And P.S. Top Pot calls. I think a New Year's donut date is in order.

Cookiecrumb, I say beans are welcome anywhere, as long as they are properly dressed--and these, thanks to our friend Mollie, most certainly are! Speaking of the lovely Ms. Katzen, I've met her too, on her book tour for Vegetable Heaven, and you're right--she really isn't a hippie. She told us some funny stories, actually, about old, hippie-ish notions of vegetarianism, and she confessed that she'd eaten a turkey sandwich that day for lunch. Who'd have thought?

Well, Anonymous, I've fooled you. That buttery illusion is actually olive oil! I'm doing our future cardiologists proud with this one.

Lindy, your vegetarian "sides" sound wonderful--and, dare I say, dreamy indeed! Are the recipes on your blog? I'll have to come over and prowl around. Thank you!

10:43 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Ooops we both forgot to mention our love of lamb.

12:25 PM, December 21, 2005  
Anonymous GooberNgrape said...

I’ve prepared Tofurkey exactly three times.
The first time I was ambivalent. Sure, it kind of tasted good-- stick stuffing in anything, cover it in gravy and bingo you’ve got a turkey-- but in concept, the softball-sized glutinous extrusion was unnerving.
The second time I made it, I took slightly more care, enhancing it with plenty of roasted vegetables and a more flavorful marinade. It tasted good. But much like a French trollop, you can dress it up anyway you like and she’s still a softball-sized glutinous extrusion.
Two years ago I made my last Tofurkey. The magic was gone. No amount of aromatics, or stock and wine could make up for the fact that I was slicing into a softball-sized glutinous extrusion. It comes down to the idea many of us who grew up eating meat have: that is, “vegetables are sides,” second fiddle to the primary meat course.

Interesting, then, that you bring up exactly what people remember most about a holiday meal besides dessert. It’s the sides that keep people coming back for seconds and thirds. People love them, they expect them because it’s part of their tradition.
So, are sides the new main dish?
I think we vegetarians are ahead of the curve on this one.

Last year, god love the Tofurkey, I made homemade squash ravioli with sage oil on garlicky greens (inspired by Plain Jane) with white beans instead of chickpeas. (I also roasted Brussels sprouts and chestnuts.) Light, filling, flavorful. It was almost like eating summer fare more than autumn, but tasty all around. And for me, eating all vegetables, it’s easier to dig into dessert so soon after dinner.

I still have to figure out what to cook for Christmas, but the menu will probably start with the white bean puree you just posted. I hope I can light mine as nicely as yours. Keep up the good work, Mollly. Happy Holidays.

10:40 PM, December 21, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

Add me to the shocked list! I had NO idea that Brandon was a vegetarian! Truly, you must be smitten.
My dear brother (who used to love bacon) has been a vegetarian for the last few years, and so dishes like these are perfect. A great balance of unctuousness and texture, with tons of flavour. I could imagine slathering this on toasted baguette - yum!

7:05 AM, December 22, 2005  
Anonymous lynn said...

I'll try the white beans. Have you ever cooked your beans with kombu seaweed? It's supposed to help you digest them. My son, a senior at Reed, is a vegetarian and I really love making vegetarian holiday food. One of my favorites is lentils simmered with a cup on onions, carmelized in butter, with garlic a bay leaf and veg broth. At the end stir in one-quarter cup single malt scotch. Don't skimp of the scotch. You can taste the difference

2:02 PM, December 22, 2005  
Anonymous lynn said...

Just remembered, another favorite is pureed lima beans, plain old frozen ones. Such an underrated vegetable. Just like your white beans, maybe with basil in summer. A pretty light green color.

5:19 PM, December 22, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Good catch, foodiechickie!

GooberNgrape, your "softball-sized glutinous extrusion" stories are horrifying--and completely hilarious! But while I do love a little intrigue at the dinner table and elsewhere, I'm ultimately with you: please pass the squash ravioli with greens and beans! Sounds like heaven. Now I only hope the "dreamy" white beans can live up to their predecessors! Merry merry to you and yours.

Tara, the truth's out! And by god, I plan to keep him anyway. And as for this toasted baguette idea, yes, please! Excellent thinking.

Lynn, those lentils sound wonderful! I absolutely love caramelized onions, and my boyfriend loves caramelized anything, so they'd be a clear winner at our table! Plus, the scotch? Wow. I can hardly wait to try it. For precision's sake, how many cups of dry lentils do you start with? And as for the lima bean puree, I'll have a scoop of that too! I love lima beans, and actually, I seem to remember my mother once making a lima-pecorino puree for slathering on little toasts. It was delicious, and it's high time it was resurrected. Oh, and as for the seaweed, no, I haven't tried that tactic. It's worth a go, though, and I certainly will try it soon. Thank you!

10:45 AM, December 23, 2005  
Anonymous lindy said...

Actually, now that I reflect, none of those items I mentioned have appeared on my blog! Must do something about that. There is a wild mushroom lasagna there, which also works.

The butternut squash/ hazelnut lasagna appeared in an old Gourmet, and was wisely reproduced in the new Gourmet Cookbook; the galette is a variant on a Deborah Madison recipe from her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

I think Deborah Madison is brilliant-she has a great sensibility, invents truly original dishes that work, and writes a well thought out recipe. Her new little Vegetarian Suppers is inspired. There's a brussel sprouts ragout with herb dumplings in there to die for.

The cauliflower is just my own.

7:16 AM, December 24, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Lindy, now that you mention it, I think I remember seeing that butternut squash / hazelnut lasagna in Gourmet! It made for a very pretty picture, as I recall. And thanks for the tip on Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Suppers. Brussels sprouts with herb dumplings sounds right up my alley...

9:37 AM, December 30, 2005  
Anonymous Lynn said...

Here are the proportions for the lentils: 1 T butter, 1 C minced onion, 2 cloves garlic, 1 C French green lentils, a bay leaf, 3 C broth or water, salt and pepper and one-quarter cup Scotch. Carmelize the onions then add garlic, and every thing but Scotch. Season with sea salt and pepper and add Scotch just before serving. We had your leeks (I added fennel too) with tarragon. Just terrific. Happy New Year.

5:44 PM, January 01, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Lynn, thanks so much for coming back with the lentils-and-Scotch details! It sounds like perfect post-holidays winter fare, and I can't wait to try it. Happy New Year to you.

9:21 PM, January 08, 2006  
Anonymous MArgarita said...

Any chance this could be adapted for canned white beans?

(Thanks, by the way, for keeping me perpetually drooling.)

10:23 AM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

You're welcome, MArgarita! I apologize for the delay in replying to your question, but you'll be pleased to know that the answer is yes. You can most certainly use canned white beans. According to the original recipe, you would use 4 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained. Follow follow the recipe as stated, with only a couple of exceptions: you will need to put less water in the pot when you simmer them, and instead of simmering for 45 minutes, you'll do only 30. Hope that helps!

12:53 PM, March 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The quantity is massive...we don't have an army to feed, just the three of us.

This recipe was not "dreamy" at all and I had to add additional ingredients to spruce it up and bring out the flavour: fresh squeezed lemon juice, fresh chopped parsley, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt. I think a bit of finely grated parm reggiano would also be nice but didn't add it.

3:14 PM, May 29, 2015  

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