Last time we were in Florence — in 2005, too long ago! — we had a fine dinner at Fabio Picchi’s restaurant Cibreo. The mode of service there, at least in those days, was intimate: One of the dining room managers took our order while seated on a little stool at our table, joining the party without intruding. My main course, a pigeon, came out of the kitchen whole; my own cutlery was used to skillfully carve it on the plate.
That intimacy was particularly palpable with a dish of mushrooms and beans: Beautiful porcini mushrooms had been cooked, with a wee bit of garlic, and sealed in an aluminum-foil parcel. This came to the table; it was opened to tease us with the mushroom aroma, and the waiter added cooked beans (cannellini?), a great deal of olive oil and shreds of bread broken off the half-eaten roll beside my plate. The foil was resealed, and we were told to wait five minutes, then open and eat.
Believe me, this was a moving experience, and not at all silly, because of the hospitable, almost loving style with which it was done.
But it was substance, not style, I thought of recently when I was shelling and cooking cranberry beans from the farmers market. That simple combination of earthy mushrooms, creamy-farinaceous beans, oil and bread (to sop everything up) seemed such a natural. As to the mushrooms, a new high-end supermarket had just opened in our neighborhood, and when Jackie and I walked up to investigate, we found plausible chanterelles (from the Pacific Northwest), from which we bought six ounces for three small appetizer portions. This would be a different dish — porcini and chanterelles are quite dissimilar in flavor — but, I reckoned, a viable one.
I decided to skip the ritual and the aluminum-foil parcel. But I wanted something that would look nice at the table, so I used a small (3/4 liter) enameled iron casserole with a tight-fitting lid. In this I warmed a teaspoon or two of olive oil with fresh thyme leaves and half a clove of garlic, thinly sliced. When the garlic was soft but not brown, I added the chanterelles, which I’d previously cleaned and halved, leaving the smallest ones whole. I seasoned this with salt and pepper, and put the tightly lidded casserole into a 375-degree oven; if the oven hadn’t been on already (for a dish of eggplant Parmigiana — yum!), I’d have cooked the mushrooms on top of the stove over low heat. They were done in about seven minutes and had shrunk to perhaps half their uncooked volume.
To the casserole, I added pre-cooked cranberry beans that I’d reheated — about the same volume as the cooked mushrooms. Other beans would be fine, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t use canned ones, so long as you rinse them well and add extra seasoning to the dish. I also added a handful of torn-up bread with the crusts removed — you’ll want a substantial bread, like a good baguette or rustic sourdough — and around three tablespoons of flavorful olive oil. After giving it a gentle stir, I covered the little casserole, brought the dish to the table, let it sit for precisely five minutes and served it up.
Okay, it wasn’t dramatic in the way the whole performance had been at Cibreo. But the dish tasted great — the olive oil really sings when it has been warmed but not actually cooked — and will certainly give rise to other mushroom-bean combinations as we move into cooler weather.