If you have ever spent time in Santa Fe, you have no doubt found yourself in one of those little casitas, guest houses on the property of other larger estates. They are usually built by hand, constructed of salvaged wood and adobe, and there might perhaps be a loft bed to make the best use of the tiny space. Throughout the four years that I lived there in Santa Fe, I walked into a few of those magical little houses, invited to a party or finding myself in a friend’s house, and always thinking on the perfection of the miniature space.
My sophomore year in college, I went to a party at one such house. I was in a new relationship, and the host was the ex-girlfriend of my new boyfriend. It seemed like it should be awkward, but it wasn’t. She was lovely, and they were still friends, and there I was at her party.
As many years ago as this was, I can feel the warmth of her little house. It had a wall of windows, and although it must have been late winter, the New Mexico sun came through those windows and created the feel of a greenhouse. It was a morning brunch party, and everyone stripped off their sweaters and scarves, and we bathed in the sun like tired cats. I didn’t really know anyone there all that well, and so I stared out the window, and I ran my hands over the knotty salvaged wood, and of course I focused on the food.
It may have been a potluck, but I don’t think so. I think that our host, Lindsie, was the one who filled the table with food, and I imagine that it was all wonderful. I base that imagining on the one dish that I do remember, the dish that I will forever link to Lindsie. Although we never got much closer than we were on that morning, she stays with me through this dish, and I always make it with her voice in my head.
This is how it went. She carried a bowl of cooked beans to the table–big fat cannellini beans in some beautiful serving dish. Then there was a handful of fresh sage leaves in one hand, and a bottle of olive oil in the other. We were all young, and most of us not so domestic, and so these actions were striking. I didn’t cook much at that point, and I knew very little about putting flavors together in graceful ways. We all watched her as she tore up the sage leaves and scattered them over the beans. And there must have been several “ahhhs” because just then Lindsie said, “People always think this is so impressive, but it’s just beans! Beans, sage, olive oil, salt and pepper, done.” And she poured several luxurious glugs of olive oil over the bowl as she talked, and it was the most beautiful action, without any thought or self consciousness. That action was mature, and delicious, and fancy. And so were the beans.
To this day, this one of my favorite party dishes. Ideally, the beans should be cooked at home instead of poured from a can to prohibit the possibility of tinniness or that peculiar canned bean texture. But if from a can is what you have time for, then that will work too. They can be warm or cold, or my favorite, met in the middle at room temperature. They are simple, and Italian, and as Lindsie pointed out, always impressive. If you can, prepare them in front of your guests. Tear the sage leaves. Let the olive oil pour with abandon. There will be sighs and ahhs, and as the perfume of the sage makes its way through the room, you can say “Just beans!” knowing full well that this is much more than that.
White Beans with Sage
(with thanks to Lindsie Bear after all these years)
1 pound dried cannellini beans
7 to 10 fresh sage leaves
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Sort through the beans and remove any stones. Pour them into a large cast iron dutch oven and cover with water. There should be about four times as much water as beans. Bring the beans to a boil, cover, and transfer to the oven. Cook until just tender. This may take as little as 1 1/2 hours, and it may take as many as 3. Beans are just like that. Check after 1 1/2 hours, and remove when they are firm, but delicious to eat. You want to get them out of the oven before they start to split.
Drain the beans, and let them cool a bit. Transfer to a lovely serving bowl. Carry it out to your guests. Roughly tear the sage leaves and sprinkle them over the beans. Pour several glugs of olive oil over as well. Then the salt, and many grinds of pepper. Stir, taste, and adjust if necessary.