Obviously one of the reasons I travel is for the food. While I love discovering new dishes in both homes and restaurants what I really look forward to is the chance to poke my nose into other people’s kitchens. I love everything about it: from the pans on the cooktop to the plates on the burners. And being right there while people cook is so important. Because even when I ask someone for a recipe, and write it down, unless I’m actually watching how the food makes its way from field to table there is so much that gets left out.
I had one of the most eye opening experiences of my life last week, when I spent time in Sicily learning how to make tomato paste. It was something I had read about and seen pictures of but still remained a mystery until I was right there, watching it happen. Don’t worry. I took copious notes , photos and even video of the process and will be sharing all the tomatoey goodness with you in the coming weeks.
In the meantime though, I’d like to share a dish that I discovered there, and that at first glance seems so simple. And in fact, I think that Fabrizia, my host in Sicily, was somewhat surprised by my curiosity about a dish that just got thrown together at the last minute to round out an otherwise starch heavy lunch around her kitchen table.
But it’s these simple recipes – a side dish of green beans in this instance – that for me are often the most revelatory. Because even though I’ve probably cooked many times my weight in green beans over the years, Fabrizia used small, but significant, techniques and ingredients, that I had never thought of and that made all the difference. And since the ‘recipe’ was so simple, I probably would have never read about it in her cookbook. In other words I had to be standing in her kitchen, while she was actually making it, to learn.
That’s what traveling is all about, right?
So, the green beans. First of all, they were pretty fantastic beans, grown in her amazing orto. So there’s that. When you start out with beans this fresh it doesn’t take much to bring them to the next level.
The first thing she did differently was to split each bean in half lengthwise. Yes, it’s time consuming, and fiddly, but so worth it. Splitting the beans in half lengthwise makes them so tender they are almost silky. (By the way, Fabrizia does have a staff in the kitchen to help with these chores. So. Get yourself some helpers!)
Secondly, the beans are VERY well cooked in salted water. Not crisp tender as green beans tend to be in the States. But cooked thoroughly through. This is not the recipe where you employ the word ‘al dente.‘
Once the beans are cooked through and drained you toss them with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, anchovies and breadcrumbs.
But here is the important part which Fabrizia insists on: Do not heat the olive oil before adding the seasoning. Start with cold olive oil, in the pan, and add the garlic. Then, and only then, heat gently to bring out the aroma of the garlic without letting it burn or color. “Adding things to hot oil spoils both the taste of the oil as well as what you are adding,’ Fabrizia told me. “Starting off cold allows the flavors to come together gently, melding, which is what you want.”
Once the garlic has melded with the oil, add the anchovies and green beans.
Finally, at the end, breadcrumbs. When I asked if they should be toasted (I thought they were going to add some sort of crunchy texture) she said no. “See” she said as she stirred and stirred, “The crumbs absorb the flavored oil, coat the beans and make a kind of creamy sauce. But obviously no cream.”
And you didn’t even have to go to Sicily to get the recipe. But if you want to? You could. And you should.
- 1 kilo of green beans
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves peeled garlic
- 8 anchovy filets
- 1 cup fine breadcrumbs
- Prepare green beans by splitting them in half lengthwise. It's a bit fiddly, but once you get going you get the hang of it. Place each bean on a cutting board, then use a long knife to split them in half.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, and add beans. Cook until very tender. Drain.
- In a saute pan large enough to hold all the beans pour the olive oil. Add the garlic cloves, peeled but not chopped.
- Turn heat to medium and slowly heat the oil. Let cook until the garlic becomes fragrant and begins to color.
- Add anchovies, stir once or twice, and then add drained beans.
- Turn up heat a bit, and stir to coat beans and heat them through. Stir until the anchovies disolve and then add the breadcrumbs.
- Continue to stir over heat, while the breadcrumbs absorb all the flavors and coat the beans in a rich, thick sauce.
- Taste and adjust for seasoning, but remember the anchovies will have added a lot of salt.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
I was a guest of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking Experience in Sicily. To find out more visit their website. They have various courses running throughout the year, including the completely unique 10-week Cook the Farm program.
For more information on dining in Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence, Torino and Umbria (and an ever expanding list of regions and cities) available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad.