Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather start a catering company in Dublin, Ireland, and in so doing bring together the large cast of characters in Maeve Binchy's novel Scarlet Feather, the current selection of our Cook the Books Club. Such cast includes the protagonists' families, spouse and spouse's family (for Cathy), girlfriend (for Tom), friends, clients and more.
While some characters have more elements on the negative plate of the scale than on the positive, all of them have something on both, and the story for me is about how even well-intentioned, generous, good people end up hurting others when they are focused exclusively on their personal goals. I think we can all relate to that. There are times when we need to focus on a single aspect of our life, be it our partner, a child, work or a specific project, to the exclusion of everybody and everything else. But when that continues for a long time, what is not the subject of our focused attention suffers and the consequences may be painful.
The novel also shows what happens when someone is neglected for years. Simon and Maud are nine-year-old twins born from parents who don't pay attention to them. They are "children from hell" and it is not their fault. They change in response to various people's efforts. In particular, Cathy's father gives them what no other adult in their life has: time and attention. He is not the only one: Cathy and her mother make sure the children are taught manners and discipline.
In an episode early on in the book, Simon and Maud gorge themselves on food they find in the refrigerator and get sick. The reason they get out of control is not, as we may think, because they are gluttonous children: they wanted to stock up on food because they weren't sure when there would be more, thus giving the reader a view of their life in their parents' grand, but completely dysfunctional house.
Simon and Maud made me think of my eating preferences as a child. There is a long list of foods I didn't like then that I have come to like a lot: beans (fagioli) are high on that list. My mother did not prepare dry beans, so we had beans only when fresh borlotti were in season. She also foraged for chicory (cicoria), whose bitter taste is definitely an acquired one: I did eventually acquired it. Every time I harvest kale and collard greens from my serendipitous garden, I am reminded of the dark chicory of my childhood.
I never tasted rhubarb as a child. I didn't even know what it looked like. All I knew was that rhubarb was used to make a digestive liqueur with a cute ad (Rabarbaro Zucca). After moving to California, I learned how rhubarb is used in the US and I have used it to make cobbler1, but I want to use it also in savory dishes: after all, it is a plant. I have a neighbor who grows rhubarb and kindly shares it with me.
In honor of Simona and Maud, I created a recipe using locally grown cranberry beans (Warren Creek Farms). I shelled and froze over 15 pounds of them last summer in ready-to-cook bags of 8 ounces / 225 g and that is what I used to develop this recipe, this year crop not being here quite yet. On the spice side I applied a favorite of mine berbere, the traditional Ethiopian spice blend, successfully used in an earlier bean recipe2.
Ingredients for the beans:
- 8 ounces / 225 g fresh (or frozen) cranberry beans
- 2 cups / 475 ml water
- A small bay leaf
- 1/2 small onion (or a quarter of a medium one), halved
- A clove of garlic, sliced
- A couple of parsley stems
- A 1-inch / 2.5 cm piece of kombu (optional)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 teaspoons / 10 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 ounces / 85 g fresh onion, finely chopped
- 3 ounces / 85 g rhubarb, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves minced or thinly sliced
- 1/2-1 teaspoon / 2.5-5 ml berbere, or to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
Whether you purchase berbere or make your own, the level of hotness is variable: adjust the quantity to your taste.
How to cook the beans
Place the beans in a saucepan with the water, the aromatics and the salt (no need to thaw them if frozen). Cover and bring the water to a lively boil quickly, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer until just tender. Taste them after 20 minutes and estimate how much longer they should cook.
Let the beans cool in their broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them. Let the beans rest in their cooking broth until ready to use.
How to finish the dish
Warm up the olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion. Stir well to coat. After a minute, add the rhubarb and stir well. Cook on gentle heat about 10 minutes, stirring often.
Add the garlic, stir well and continue cooking for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Sprinkle the berbere and stir well. Continue cooking for a minute, stirring often.
Add the beans and their cooking broth to the saucepan and stir. Cover, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the beans are quite tender.
Season with salt and give it a final stir. Serve hot.
The result may not be a vibrant-colored dish, but it is one that surprises with its flavor: creamy, slightly sweet beans, a hint of tartness from the rhubarb and warm berbere to round the dish. The greens in the photos are Red Russian kale, collard greens and Swiss chard from my garden.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the borlotti con rabarbaro e berbere audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.