My favorite way to cook, the cooking that makes me happiest, is the kind of cooking you do on the fly: no planning, no prepping. You just see what you have already on hand and you make dinner. And often that dinner is way better than the dinner you spend a week prepping for, shopping for and methodically executing. I have a theory about this. The theory involves cravings: the food that you crave in a specific moment directly correlates to something that your body wants. So, when you’re making dinner on the fly, if you add an extra pinch of red chile flakes? That’s because your body’s craving some heat. And that’s why the dinner you make on the fly is often so satisfying.
I can’t fathom, then, a more satisfying winter night’s dinner made on the fly than the dinner I made last week of stewed borlotti beans with polenta. The beans were dried ones I’d purchased from Eataly a few weeks prior:
These were in my cabinet, I had some garlic in my Bowl of Garlic and some rosemary in the refrigerator. I also had polenta that I bought at the farmer’s market this past summer (carefully protected in its bag) and lots of frozen chicken stock in the freezer. I clapped my hands together and I was ready to roll.
Step One: consult the internet. I found this recipe from Florence Fabricant in The New York Times and it worked as a really helpful model for how to make this dinner work.
No, I didn’t have an onion or beef stock or pastrami, but I had garlic and rosemary and mustard seeds. I would make this work. I chopped about 3 cloves of garlic rather finely along with a sprig or two of rosemary leaves:
Into a Dutch oven those went with a big splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of mustard seeds. I turned up the heat and as the air became fragrant and the mustard seeds started to pop, I added 1 1/2 cups of the barlotti beans and 4 cups of my chicken stock (which I’d melted and brought to a simmer in a pot) plus an extra cup of water:
You don’t add salt at this point because beans don’t like that. You season beans after they cook.
Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for an hour, stirring every so often. After an hour, you can add some salt (a big pinch) and simmer another 45 minutes to an hour until the beans are tender and no longer soupy. They will look like this:
Don’t those look good? And they smelled so good too! The fragrance was strangely citrusy, even though there wasn’t any citrus in there. And between the garlic and the rosemary and the mustard seeds, there was nothing boring about these beans. Still, though, I took FloFab’s advice and stirred in some Dijon mustard to give them an extra kick.
Meanwhile, I’d been making polenta with another container of chicken stock. I used Lidia Bastianich’s recipe (see here) which I cut in half. At the end, I added a tablespoon or two of butter, some Parmesan and chopped parsley:
And there it was: a dinner fit for a king, a king who really likes beans and who doesn’t like to leave his apartment when it’s freezing and snowing in New York. Next time you’re hungry, don’t order in or go food shopping; see what you already have on hand and cook it. You won’t be sorry.