“Best.” In the six years that I’ve been writing this blog, I don’t think I’ve used the word too often. But after preparing the recipe for Braised Oxtails with White Beans, Tomatoes, and Aleppo Pepper from “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, the subject of today’s post, I believe it ranks among the best dishes I’ve ever prepared. In fact, I can easily say that I’ve never made a better braise in all my years of cooking.
Back in the early days when The Food Network seemed more focused on serious cooking than on competition shows and celebrity, Jamie Oliver, a British chef, made his debut on the network in 1999 with a series called The Naked Chef. As might be inferred from the show’s title, Oliver took a minimalist approach to home cooking, stripping recipes to their bare essentials.
I was a fan then and still am, after twenty years of watching him on television and reading his books at home. Recently, while viewing our local PBS channel here in San Diego, I came upon what I believed to be his latest show, 5 Ingredients—Quick & Easy Food. After watching several episodes, I purchased the eponymous book spawned by the series. All the beautifully illustrated book’s recipes do actually adhere to the limit of 5 ingredients, except for kitchen staples like salt and pepper, olive oil, vinegar, etc. and most can be prepared relatively quickly, making them perfect choices for weeknight cooking. Many of the recipes can also be found online on Oliver’s website.
Never before have I’ve been flooded with so many requests from friends and family to make a recipe that they saw in The New York Times. Heck, even The Times itself e-mailed me several times about the same dish. Although, I had already come across this cannellini bean and pasta recipe on my own when it first appeared, I didn’t find it all that exciting. I must admit, however, that upon reading the recipe’s backstory and why its developer chose to use a classic French beurre blanc, I became more interested.
It’s been pretty wintry here in San Diego these past few weeks. Jeans have taken the place of shorts, and sweatshirts, the place of polos. The chilly temps have similarly impacted our menus, with hardier dishes taking precedence over lighter fare. A case in point was last night’s entree, punti e fagioli, or spare ribs with beans: thick, center-cut country-style pork ribs simmered slowly in tomato sauce with cannellini beans. The perfect comfort food for a winter night.
The other day, my “Daily Briefing” email from The New York Times led me to a recipe for a Cheesy White Bean Tomato Bake. The photo accompanying the recipe looked so good that I simply had to make the dish that night.
When I started to cook, however, I began to find elements of the recipe that I needed or wanted to change. First off, because my pantry only had one can of cannellini beans, I had to substitute a can of chickpeas for the second can called for by the recipe. I believe this forced change was fortuitous since the chickpeas added another layer of flavor to the dish.
Next, I thought that cooking the garlic in heated oil for only one minute over medium-high heat wouldn’t yield the depth of flavor as would adding the garlic to unheated oil and slowly simmering it over low heat for five of six minutes. I similarly extended the time for “frying” the tomato paste from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, but made sure that the tomato paste didn’t burn by stirring it.
In addition, to add a little heat, I added a generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to simmer with the garlic and oil.
In the recipe’s second step, I opted for the longer cooking time in the oven, a full ten minutes, at which point the mozzarella had started to melt. And as the recipe had anticipated, the cheese still was not as toasted as depicted in the recipe’s photo, so as suggested, I ran the skillet under the broiler for at least 2 minutes.
Although the final dish was very good, a perfect comfort food, I believe the recipe still needs some tweaking. Perhaps rendering some pancetta at the beginning or using a smoked mozzarella would do the trick. I’ll let you know how it turns out the next time around.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 generous tablespoons double concentrated Italian tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
½ cup boiling water
Kosher salt and black pepper
⅓ pound mozzarella, coarsely grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
Heat the oven to 475 degrees.
1) In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, simmer the olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes over low heat, until the garlic turns slightly golden, about 5 or 6 minutes.\
2) Raise the heat to medium low and stir in the tomato paste (be careful of splattering) and fry for 1 ½ minutes, reducing the heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning.
3) Add the beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper and stir to combine.
4) Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top, then bake until the cheese has melted and browned in spots, approximately 10 minutes.
5) If the top is not as toasted as you’d like, run the skillet under the broiler for a 1 to 2 minutes. Watch closely to avoid burning.
Serve at once with crusty bread.
Wine Pairing: Zinfandel, Primativo