Cozy, warming, healthy, healing: all appropriate descriptors for this big steamy bowl of tender white beans with sage, spinach, and fennel. Depending where you are in the world, you may or may not find yourself searching for a cure for what most people call, “February.” I personally like to think of it as, “The Most Dreary of All Months.” Holidays are over (Valentine’s day does not count), the earth is still in hibernation, and the wistful thought of spring is but a misty dream. Sad, isn’t it?
Fix yourself a bowl of these beans-- they'll warm your heart without weighing you down.
To add insult to injury, the hearty, stick-to-your-belly dishes that were so appealing when the first snows arrived have now turned heavy and burdensome. Too many roasts and stews have our blood running sluggishly, but it’s too early for most fresh produce. A February tomato isn’t refreshing, just doleful cardboard. Are you here with me? In this grey February, seeking comfort and lightness all in one bowl?
Filling and Hearty, yes, but this white bean stew won't weigh you down.
The tomatoes are bright. The sage is both fresh and comforting, hinting at the recent cheer of holiday roasts and casseroles. The fennel adds just a hint of sweetness, more subtle than the fennel seeds in Italian sausage. And the baby greens are packed with virtuous vitamins, as well as the mercy of a short cook-time. Yes, this is one of my favorite comfort meals when winter has stretched on just a bit too long and I want both lightness and coziness.
A few other flavor notes:
1. For big flavor without fiery heat, use a fruity chile flake like Silk chiles (aka Aleppo chiles). Standard chile flakes, like what you would find at a pizzeria, will be much spicier. For a smoky effect, seek out chipotle flakes.
2. Please don’t be afraid of frying sage! Not only does it create the perfect savory-crispy garnish, but the frying oil becomes infused with peppery sage flavor. This adds simple depth to the initial sauté AND creates a flavorful finishing drizzle. It’s easy and incredibly worth the extra step.
3. You REALLY need bread with this, so you can mop your plate as you eat. Warm pita, a crusty hearth loaf, or buttery biscuits are all excellent options.
Beans are everywhere these days, and for good reason...
They are creamy and rich, but they still have good tooth. The best ones have a savoriness to them that I can best explain as “earthy,” but a radically different earthiness than, say, a mushroom. I prefer starting my beans from dried, in part because of cost but also because they save space in my pantry! High-quality heirloom dried beans all have their own unique flavors, and they usually have a package date to tell you how old they are. Fresher beans cook more evenly and taste better, so I highly recommend seeking out the good stuff.
You’re probably already familiar with Rancho Gordo beans, but I’m also a big fan of Zursun and the Crop Rotation bean offerings from Maine Grains. If you’re looking for some inspiration and bean wisdom, I HIGHLY recommend getting a copy of Grist by Abra Berens. It’s overflowing with great tips and mouth-watering flavor combinations.
All of that being said, on a cold night after a long day, canned beans are one of my most-loved dinner hacks. Already cooked, and they come with precious, starchy liquid. Oh yes, here in Small Pantry world we save pasta water AND bean water. This recipe calls for canned beans, but I’ve also added tips below for using home-cooked beans instead.
(The beans are not affiliate links, I just want you to have good beans in your pantry. However, if you purchase a book through my Bookshop link, not only does Bookshop.org give 30% to local bookstores, but I also earn a small affiliate commission. Thank you! xoxo)
Notes for Success:
Canned beans are easy, but if you want to start from dry, here’s what you need to know:
1. Soak and simmer your beans ahead of time.
2. Save your simmering liquid! You need about 2 cups to replicate the liquid from the canned beans.
3. Use roughly 3 cups of simmered beans to replicate the canned beans. A bit more or less won’t hurt.
4. Any bean will do, really. I like the look of white beans in this stew, and I generally prefer navy beans over cannellini, since the softer cannellini tend to break down more during cooking.
White Beans with Sage, Spinach, and Fennel
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 15 whole fresh sage leaves, plus 2 tbsp finely chopped leaves (About one 1-ounce clam-shell)
- 1 large fennel bulb, trimmed, halved, cored, and finely chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ¼ teaspoons red pepper flakes (See Notes)
- Kosher salt and black pepper (Cut salt in half if using table salt)
- 14½ ounce can diced tomatoes
- Two 15½ ounce cans white beans (NOT drained)
- 2 cups (2 ounces) baby spinach or baby kale, chopped
- Fresh bread, to serve
- Poached eggs, to serve (optional)
- Step 1Line a plate with paper towels. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the whole sage leaves and cook, flipping once, until beginning to turn spotty and the edges begin to curl, about 1 minute total. Transfer the leaves to the plate, where their residual heat will help them crisp up. Decant and reserve about half the sage-infused oil from the pot and set aside for serving.
- Step 2To the same Dutch oven over medium heat, add the fennel, onion, garlic, chopped sage, red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is tender but not completely soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, the beans and their liquid, and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a cheerful simmer. Continue to cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the flavors have mellowed and mingled, about 10 minutes.
- Step 3Just before serving, stir in the chopped spinach. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. To serve, drizzle each bowl with the reserved sage-infused oil. Coarsely crumble the crispy fried sage and sprinkle over each portion. Finish with shaved Parmesan to taste.