Small, Good Things: Beans and Greens

My friend Jane reminded me of this curiosity when she called asking for the recipe of “that funny dish you brought to Christmas a couple of years ago: Mud and Grass.”

Not a very appetizing name, but a simple side dish I got seriously addicted to while living in Chicago a couple of years ago. Brooklyn-raised chef John Caputo (of a Mano, a consistently great bistro on Dearborn just north of the Loop, sadly no longer there) created the version I first tasted in honor of his Pugliesi grandparents: a bed of escarole sautéed in garlicky olive oil and topped by a truffled fava bean purée (an Apulian specialty).

“Mud and Grass” on the menu, but distilled to its essence, just beans and greens. Chef’s winter variation substituted a chickpea purée for the favas and chicory for the escarole. The effect was comfortingly and deliciously the same, and I don’t remember ever not ordering it in all the many times I ate there.

But as friendly as he was, Chef Caputo was never really forthcoming with the recipe. The closest I got was in web-searching for the cuisine of Apulia: a mention of Fave e Cicorie Selvatiche (Fava Bean Purée With Wild Chicory), which cited it as a prime example of Pugliesi cucina povera, or “the cuisine of poverty.”

Now if you’ve been paying attention to health news lately, you might make the connection between said humble cooking and the much-touted and reportedly heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, the defining features of both being a primary reliance on local, fresh vegetables (particularly leafy greens and legumes), little meat, and a lot of olive oil.

This is very simple eating and cooking, folks — that “truffled” note in a Mano’s original was a red herring! It’s just a hot mess of sautéed greens!

Mud & Grass recipe photoAnd the Pugliesi have a saying: “Quando minti oiu e sale ogne erba se pote mangiare.” (When you add oil and salt, all greens are edible.) So freely substitute escarole, spinach, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, beet greens — oh hell, almost anything leafy and green. The basic preparation requires a quick blanching and cooling before the sauté that has a double-fold purpose — it preserves the bright color, but it also removes a fair amount of the sharpness from bitter greens.

And although it’s not strictly kosher (what’s the Italian version of kosher?), I say you’re welcomed to take equal liberties with the beans. Favas truly are sublime in season and the most authentic version; chickpeas are proven, too, but I wouldn’t reject out-of-hand cannellini or even lentils. Someday I might even give edamame or sweet peas a shot. (The other secret is that although there is much to be said for starting with the highest quality ingredients — including dried beans — if you’re in a hurry or the barren season is upon us like right now, canned chickpeas or cannellini are acceptable. Garlic and lemon juice will brighten up those quiet winter flavors.)

A final note: This is a great side dish with a roast or fish, or make a meal from it with a simple pasta dish — oil, garlic and black pepper or a simple tomato sauce over some small shape like oricchiette (an Apulian original). I have been known to toss it directly onto drained whole-wheat pasta for a warm, filling and healthy late-winter meal.

But, about that name … .

Mud (bean purée)

Makes about 1½-2 cups 

2 cups cooked beans, drained (chickpeas, cannellini, favas)

¼ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling

4 cloves garlic (or more), minced

½ cup water

2-3 sprigs thyme

1-2 sprigs rosemary

The juice of ½ lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium heat until fragrant. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally for about a minute. Add thyme and rosemary and cook for another ½ minute.

2. Add the beans and stir to coat with oil. Add water and bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Remove cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, about 10 more minutes. (Add water as needed, a little at a time, to keep beans from sticking.)

4. Remove from heat; pick out and discard thyme and rosemary sprigs. Transfer beans to a blender and process until mixture is puréed. (If purée is too thick, add water incrementally to reach desired consistency.) Add the lemon juice and a bit more olive oil (1-2 tablespoons). Keep warm in a double boiler or bain marie.

NOTE: The purée can be prepared ahead of time and reheated. It also makes a great dip for vegetables or pita chips or the like.

Grass (sautéed greens)

Makes about 6 servings

2-3 pounds chicory (or escarole, dandelion or beet greens, broccoli rabe or spinach)

½ cup olive oil

4-6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Remove any tough or damaged outer leaves from the greens and tear leaves into large pieces. Wash well in a sink filled with cold water.

2. Bring a pot (large enough to submerge the greens) of salted water to a boil. Lower heat and blanch greens 3-5 minutes (depending on their relative toughness — spinach will take less time, broccoli rabe, more). Drain quickly and dump into a large bowl of iced water to arrest cooking and preserve the color. When greens are cool, drain well in a colander and squeeze very dry. (This can be done ahead of time and the sauté performed once the “mud” is ready.)

3. Heat oil in a large skillet pan over low heat. Add garlic and pepper flakes and cook until garlic is translucent but not browned. Raise heat to medium, stir in the escarole and cook for 3 minutes or until hot. Add lemon juice and heat for another minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mud and grass assembly

Arrange sautéed “grass” in a serving bowl. (Form a kind of doughnut shape with a deep depression in the center of the greens.) Unceremoniously dump about a cup to a cup-and-a-half of the “mud” into the center of the greens. Drizzle with more olive oil and garnish with a sprinkle of fresh herbs if you have them. Serve warm.

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