Recently, I was challenged with cooking for a mix of Paleos, vegetarians, and a person who could not eat beans or wheat. Sigh.
I fell back on a strategy I devised years ago to feed a crowd: a big white bean stew scented with bay leaves was the lynchpin. I made a variety of embellishments with which my guests could transform the rustic stew at will (or as their diet dictated): escarole greens sauteed with garlic in olive oil; peppers tossed with EV oil and dusted with sweet Pimenton de la Vera before being roasted in a hot oven until tinged with brown; sliced fennel, shallots and slivered lemon zest, tossed with EV olive oil and hot roasted as well. I also roasted a half boned leg of lamb for the carnivores who might prefer meat with sides of vegetables, and the pour soul who could not eat beans or wheat…
The menu was a hit and satisfied every dietary need (with two of the vegetarians diving into the lamb).
Strategically, the menu was easy to manage as everything could be done ahead, with the vegetables being served at room temperature. The beans stew takes about 20 minutes of work and can be made three days ahead (or frozen) and reheated. I roasted the two kinds of vegetables in relays, while I sauteed the escarole. I roasted the lamb an hour before everyone arrived.
I placed the hot copper pot of stew in the center of the table and passed bowls of vegetables, the bread, cheese for grating and the platter of meat. All would work well on a buffet.
As is, with good bread, a drizzle of olive oil and gratings of Parmigiano Reggiano, the white bean ragout will provide a satisfying and complete meal for most. But if you want to gild the lily, here is a sampling of embellishments that marry wonderfully with it.
—Fruity extra-virgin olive oil or a flavored oil such as Fragrant Rosemary Oil (recipe here) drizzled over each serving
—Hard aged cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Fiore Sardo, or Manchego, thinly shaved or grated over each serving
—Chopped fresh mild herbs such as basil, cilantro, chives, flat-leaf parsley (1 or 2 tablespoons sprinkled over each serving)
—About 2 cups cooked sautéed or roasted vegetables (1/4 cup to be spooned into the center of each serving), such as:
-roasted, caramelized root vegetables, onions, fennel or peppers (slice, toss with EV olive oil, salt and pepper and any other seasonings. Spread out on a sheet pan and roast in a hot oven until tender and beginning to brown.)
-sautéed wild mushrooms
-sauteed garlicky greens, such as escarole, spinach, chard etc (method here)
-slow roasted tomatoes, coarsely chopped (recipe here)
—Roast chicken, shredded
—Slow-cooked beef, pork or lamb, shredded and warmed
Recipe: White Bean Ragout
Good bay leaves are essential: I prefer Turkish or Sicilian which have a mild,nuanced flavor. Steer clear of the long, shiny California bay leaves which have a strong, eucalyptus-like flavor.
Serves 6 to 8; can be scaled up two or three times.
1 pound (about 2-1/2 cups) dried white beans, such as baby limas, navy or cannellini, soaked overnight in water to cover by 2 inches
1 ounce thick-sliced bacon or pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice (scant 1/4 cup)
OR 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil OR 1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
6 to 8 cups unsalted homemade or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 small serrano or jalapeno chili, seeded and deribbed, OR 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 imported bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
Place the beans in a large saucepan and cover with water by 2 inches. Soak overnight. Bring to a simmer, and drain the beans in a colander. Alternatively, if you cannot soak the beans, bring the beans to a boil, turn off the heat and cover; let sit one hour then drain the beans in a colander.
In a large heavy saucepan or a dutch oven, over low heat, cook the pancetta, if using, covered, stirring occasionally, until it has rendered its fat and is fairly crisp, about 15 minutes; with a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a bowl. Or, if using olive oil or bacon fat, heat it over low heat.
Add the onion, carrot, and garlic to the pan. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft but not browned, about 15 minutes. Add the beans along with 6 cups of the broth, the chili pepper, bay leaves, sugar, and cooked pancetta, if using.
Bring to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until the soup begins to thicken and the beans are soft, about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours, adding as much additional chicken broth as necessary to achieve the consistency you prefer. After 1 hour of cooking, stir in the salt. Season the soup with pepper.
To serve, ladle the soup into warm soup bowls. Pass any embellishments to be added as desired.