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Melissa Clark's Braised Beans with Bacon and Wine

Braised beans with red wine and bacon

I have a very unquiet mind when it comes to dregs of wine in bottles and leftover ends of cured bacon in the fridge. (Okay, fine, when it comes to other things, too, but let's not dwell on that today, shall we?) Last week, a friend came over for dinner with a really nice bottle of Zweigelt that we almost finished, but not quite, and I bought a chunk of Speck for recipe-testing (I am deep into the savory chapter right now and it is just full of good stuff, let me tell you) that I almost finished, but not quite, and then there was this weirdo jar of dried beans on my pantry shelf that had been eyeing me reproachfully for months - all of this building to a feverish crescendo when I stumbled upon Sarah's post. Blog kismet, because there was a recipe that would use up all three - wine, bacon and beans - in one delicious big-potted meal. I practically felt like shouting "a-ha!" out loud.

It's funny, after all these years of obsessive recipe clipping from the newspaper, I still sometimes miss recipes when they're first published. Like this one, a Melissa Clark recipe for a refined bean stew with rosemary, bacon and wine that she put together with a little help from Daniel Boulud. She created it in response to a request for an affordable, vegetarian dinner party dish and I am here to say that not only would I happily serve this as a dinner party dish (oh wait, I did!), but it does very nicely indeed as a three-times-in-one-week-for-the-two-of-us-dish, too. More than very nicely. It makes you feel practically rich, to have a pot full of beans like this just waiting for you on the stove every day.

What makes the stew refined is the wine syrup that you make separately, while your beans and bacon and aromatics are braising away in a big pot. The syrup then gets mixed in at the end, darkening the beans both visually and taste-wise. Both Sarah and Melissa suggested serving this stew with polenta, which I did, but I confess that I didn't like it as much as I liked just plopping a big ladleful or two in a shallow bowl, drizzling the top with nice olive oil and then tucking in with a chunk of crusty, holey white bread. Which came in very handy, too, for cleaning the bowl carefully at the end. Because - I'll just go ahead and tell you - you won't want to miss even one gram of the gravy, which is a veritable symphony of flavors.

Of course, the bacon makes this stew decidedly un-vegetarian, though I think the meaty, salty, smoky bacon is crucial to the end result. Plus, I love coming across those chewy little cubes as I eat the meltingly tender beans. But Melissa swears that it's just as good without the bacon, so proceed as you wish.

Melissa Clark's Braised Beans with Bacon and Wine
Serves 8
Note: You can soak the dried beans overnight or skip this step. If you soak the beans, the cooking time will reduce by about half. But remember that the age of your dried beans will also affect the cooking time (the older they are, the longer they'll take). I used dried beans, unsoaked, and they were done after 2 hours of cooking.

½ pound smoky bacon, diced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 large sprigs rosemary
1 pound dried beans (pinto or white beans)
2 teaspoons coarse salt, more to taste
2 cups dry red wine
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving

1. In the bottom of a large enameled cast-iron pot, over medium-high heat, brown bacon until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in onion, celery, carrots, garlic and rosemary. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. If you soaked the beans, drain them and add to pot along with the salt. Pour in enough water to just cover the beans (about 7 to 8 cups). Bring liquid to a boil; reduce heat and simmer gently until beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour for soaked beans, 1 1/2 to 2 hours for unsoaked beans.

3. Meanwhile, in a small pot over medium heat, simmer wine until it is reduced to 2/3 cup, 20 to 30 minutes.

4. Remove rosemary branches from bean pot and discard them. Pour wine into beans and cook for 10-15 minutes longer to meld flavors and thicken broth to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve, preferably with some crusty bread.