As delicious as they are (and a staple in our house), there is so much more to these legumes than the most well-known form in the UK suggests- canned in a tomato based sauce. Used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Native Americans and hardy in storage, they are the perfect and versatile carriers for all kinds of flavours- from the more subtle to punchier, earthier ingredients.
The subtle rosiness of the cannelini bean, much beloved by the Etruscans who baked them in sealed bottles flavoured with rosemary forms the backbone of this simple and inexpensive gratin, augmented by the borlotti – another ‘Italian Stallion’, much grown in the Veneto region and prized for its beautiful dappled-pink jacket. I have used canned beans but there is no reason why you cannot use dried although this removes the store cupboard spontaneity of this meal as they will need to be soaked for several hours.
Another plus point for gratins in general is their ability to be either the star of the show or an accompaniment to something else. Served as it is with some bread, this gratin is absolutely fine and leaves nobody feeling cheated. Or you can add sausage: the rough-hewn chunkiness of the Toulouse; a few slices of the terracotta-juiced chorizo or a classic Lincolnshire will all turn your gratin into a real down home feast. It even works with Quorn vegetarian sausages because the gratin has enough residual sauce to counteract the lack of flavour-packed fat in these. Leave the crumb topping as it is or add in some grated cheese-whatever you have lying around in your larder. Like most comfort foods, it originates from a place of using up what you have.
Smokey Bean Gratin with Crumbs.
One can of Borlotti Beans and one can of Canellini beans, drained and rinsed of the salted water / One red bell pepper / one large white onion fine sliced / two garlic cloves fine sliced or a good squirt of garlic paste / 1/2 can of plum tomatoes / one teaspoon of either Tomato Paste or La Bomba tomato paste / one teaspoon of Sweet Spanish smoked Paprika / salt and pepper to season / one teaspoon of Thyme / Olive Oil for frying / One slice of dry bread/ small end piece of Chile (optional)
Heat the oven to 180C . Add olive oil to a frying pan and slowly cook down the onion, red pepper, tomato chunks, thyme, chile (if using) and garlic with the tomato paste and salt to season until softened and glistening. You will need to cook this down for at least fifteen minutes to allow the tomato paste to mellow in its flavour. If it looks like it is drying out, add a little more canned tomato.
Whilst this is cooking down, grate the bread into crumbs, stir in some smoked paprika, a little more Thyme and some salt, drizzle with Olive Oil and spread onto a baking sheet. Place the breadcrumbs into the oven for a couple of minutes to fully dry out but don’t let them colour. Taste the onion and tomato mix and adjust the seasoning if you feel this is necessary.
Add the beans to the onion and tomato mixture, mix and pour into a baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, drizzle over a little olive oil and place in the oven. The gratin only needs ten minutes maximum and keep an eye on it. Depending upon your oven, the crumb topping may brown faster or slower. When it is ready, remove and eat immediately. We ate ours with sausages and some left over roast chicken.