This is a great and easy way of cooking beans. They may look just like English baked beans, but the taste is completely different and unmistakably Italian. It is a classic Tuscan dish and its name, fagioli all’uccelletto, literally means “little bird beans”. The name probably refers to the use of sage and garlic in the dish, which is also typically used to cook small game birds. Cannellini beans are used for this recipe. You can either use dried beans — preferable if you have the time — or the tinned variety. When I am feeling lazy, I use tinned beans myself.
Although this dish can be found across Tuscany and beyond, it is also common in Italian Jewish cooking. In particular, it is a classic side dish to Cuscussu alla Livornese, which is an Italian Jewish couscous from Livorno, an interesting city on the coast of Tuscany.
In fact, Livorno had a large number of Sephardic Jews who came from Morocco and Algeria throughout the centuries. So here is an interesting mixture of couscous — clearly not Italian — and cannellini beans, tomatoes, garlic and sage, which are quintessentially Italian. Next time I will show you how to make great Italian meatballs in tomato sauce, which is also part of the Cuscussu alla Livornese.
Cooking time: 40 minutes. Serves 4-6 as a side dish
Either 300g dry cannellini beans OR two tins of cannellini beans in water
2 crushed cloves of garlic
400g tin of plum tomatoes in tomato juice
6-7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5-6 leaves of fresh sage
Salt and black pepper to taste
If using dry beans, soak them in cold water overnight or for 12 hours. Drain, place them in a large saucepan filled with cold water and bring to the boil, cover and leave to cook for 1 ½ to 2 hours until cooked.
In a separate saucepan, ideally non-stick, heat the extra-virgin olive oil and add the crushed garlic and the sage.
Leave to cook for a few minutes. Ensure the garlic does not burn — this will make it bitter. Add the tomatoes, season and stir well.
Tip: crush the tomatoes while adding it to the saucepan, either with your hands or with a fork, in this way they will cook faster and give fuller flavour to the beans.
Leave to cook for 10 minutes and then add the beans (either the ones cooked earlier or from a tin drained of its liquid).
Cook over a low flame, covered, for 20-30 minutes stirring occasionally. Some beans may take longer to cook; they need to be tender but still firm to the bite.
Remove the lid and cook for another few minutes until the tomato sauce is reduced. l Once cooked, taste and add more salt if required. Serve with a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil. Enjoy!