Entertaining these days often means being challenged with feeding a mix of carnivores, vegetarians, vegans, and people with specific prohibitions who cannot eat something or other. Sigh.

Longtime reader Jim Dillon reminded me of a strategy he read in Improvised Life years ago and has been using ever since when he has a crowd to feed: Make a big white bean stew scented with bay leaves as the lynchpin. And offer a variety of embellishments and accompaniments with which guests can forge a meal as their diet or hunger dictates. The menu is invariably a hit and satisfies almost every dietary need. .

I make several vegetable dishes that can be used to embellish the soup or stand on their own, such as escarole or another green sauteed with garlic in olive oil; peppers tossed with oil and dusted with sweet Pimenton de la  Vera before being roasted in a hot oven until tinged with brown; sliced fennel, shallots and thin lemon slices tossed with olive oil and hot-roasted as well. You get the idea.

I also often roast a half boned leg of lamb for the carnivores who might prefer meat with sides of vegetables or white beans. Guests who don’t eat beans or meat would have a selection of vegetable dishes to enjoy, along with breads, slices of aged sheep’s milk cheese or grated Parmigiano, great olive oil for drizzling.

Rustic White Bean Ragout with Sauteed peppers with Garlic and Pimenton de la Vera. Photo: Sally Schneider

Strategically, the menu is easy to manage as everything can 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 roast the vegetables in relays, while I saute the escarole. I roast the lamb an hour before everyone arrives.

I placed the hot copper pot of stew in the center of the table and pass bowls of vegetables, bread, cheese, and the platter of meat. All would work well on a buffet.

White Bean Ragout with grated Parmigiano Reggiano and extra-virgin olive oil photo: Sally Schneider

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.

(And of course, draw on your own imagination or repertoire):

—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

—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 roasted in a hot oven until tender and beginning to brown. (Recipe for peppers here.)

-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

Rustic White Bean Ragout with Sauteed Escarole

Recipe: Rustic 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 or vegetable broth, or water with a 3-inch strip of kombu seaweed (remove after 1 hour of cooking)

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 broth or water 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.

Thanks for the reminder, Jim!

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2 replies on “Rustic White Bean Ragout with Embellishments To Satisfy Various Diets and Hungers

  1. Sounds really lovely and wonderfully inclusive, Sally! But perhaps to be on safe side, since you specifically mention serving this to vegetarian and vegan friends, the recipe might be amended throughout to specify “chicken OR vegetable broth.” Some carnivorous cooks, despite good intentions, can be either clueless or thoughtless and need it spelled out. A longtime friend who knew I am a committed 40-year vegetarian invited me to a dinner gathering where she served a “vegetarian” stew. She kept it to herself that she’d used chicken broth; I found out post-meal. She shrugged it off but it was violation of my beliefs and my trust.
    I will definitely try this recipe (with veg broth of course!) Those caramelized and roasted veg additions sound mouthwatering. -Archie

  2. You are RIGHT. Thank you for the catch. I’ve added vegetarian options including plain water with a strip of kombu seaweed, which adds umami and makes beans more digestible.

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