By Joe Dizney
“Bowls Are the New Plates” read a headline in the Wall Street Journal two years ago. It certainly seems to be playing out.
And where there are bowls, there is …bowl food! You have soups, of course, but also Hawaiian pokés, smoothie bowls and taco bowls, salads (Chopt), and pasta (Pasta Flyer). The trend seems to speak to an informality and familial “hominess” that we lean toward in unsettled times.
“Pizza beans” (or Pizza-in-a-Bowl, as I call it) is a bowl-food meme which seems to exemplify the trend and illustrate its salient features. The recipe’s author, Deb Perelman, is known for her blog, Smitten Kitchen. Her casual recipes and conversational style spawned The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and Smitten Kitchen Every Day, the source of this recipe.
What started out as “a mashup of a giant-beans-in-tomato-sauce dish from Greece and American-style baked ziti, with beans instead of noodles” became “pizza beans” to entice a legume-hating 3-year-old. Topped with melted cheese and served in a bowl, it’s as comforting and familiar to a kid as a bowl of Cheerios and as heartily satisfying to an adult as a cassoulet — with about one quarter of the work. Disregarding the bean-cooking pot, if you have a deep ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven, this is a relatively fast one-pot meal.
Giant white dried Royal Corona beans are the gold standard; Rancho Gordo’s are available online and are sold otherwise as fagioli corona (Italian), gigantes/gigandes (Greek) or in one form or another in Eastern markets. I am told Walmart has giant dried limas that work just fine.
Regular-sized white beans such as cannellini are OK, but they have a less refined taste and texture. (You can use canned, drained and rinsed cannellini but the texture will be even further off.) Soak and prepare dried beans as per common instructions. Reserve the cooking liquid if you like as a readymade and nutrient-rich alternative to the broth and/or wine called for in the recipe.
Whereas Perelman’s recipe is vegetarian, the inclusion of sweet Italian pork or fennel-laden luganica sausage makes sense to those who self-identify as meatheads.
Although her recipe calls for kale, any other hearty green works, such as spinach or chard. The absence of herbs also begs customization: sage, oregano or basil are obvious choices. For the cheese-intolerant, substitute a seasoned breadcrumb topping to enter the realm of the aforementioned cassoulet.
Tomato-Braised Bean Gratin (“Pizza Beans”)
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen Every Day; serves 8
1 pound cooked giant white beans (see above for substitutes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1¾ pound coarse ground fresh pork sausage (Italian Sweet or luganica) (optional)
1 large onion, chopped roughly
2 celery stalks, diced medium
1 large or 2 medium carrots, diced large
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white or red wine (or bean cooking liquid)
4 ounces kale (or spinach or chard), roughly chopped
2¼ cups crushed tomatoes (28-ounce can minus 1 cup; freeze the rest)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Up to ¾ cup broth (vegetable or chicken) or bean cooking liquid
½ pound mozzarella, grated coarsely and 1/3 cup grated Parmesan*
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley (or basil) chopped for garnish (optional)
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Heat the olive oil on medium-high in a 2½- to 3-quart deep ovenproof sauté pan or Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery and carrots.
Cook, stirring regularly for about 5 minutes. Add the red pepper, garlic and sausage (if using), cooking for another 5 minutes, crumbling sausage as you stir.
Add wine (if using) to scrape up any stuck bits, then simmer until it disappears, or 1 to 2 minutes. Add kale or spinach and cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add beans. If the mixture looks too dry or thick, add broth ¼ cup at a time (up to ¾ cup). Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes; adjust salt and pepper.
Remove from heat. If your pan isn’t ovenproof, transfer the mixture to a 3-quart baking dish or casserole. Top the beans first with mozzarella, then Parmesan, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until browned on top. If you’re impatient or want a deeper color, run it under the broiler.
Finish with parsley and serve warm. Leftovers reheat well: put it in a small gratin dish and warm in the oven; add more cheeses and run it under the broiler. It is also an excellent candidate for freezing.
* For a dairy-free alternative, use a mixture of ½ cup bread crumbs, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper and ½ teaspoon salt moistened with a splash of olive oil and sprinkled evenly over the top. You may have to adjust the bake time so that the top does not burn.