Federico García Lorca1 is one of my favorite poets, so when I came across a novel whose protagonist's name was Lorca, I had to read it: I am glad I followed my impulse. Jessica Soffer's Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots2 is the current selection of our Cook the Books Club. The book brings together a group of people who all carry a heavy burden of pain: the pain of exile from homeland and from motherhood, the pain of an aloof mother and an absent father, the pain of loneliness, abandonment, inadequacy. Food is one way through which the novel's characters work through the destruction such pain causes in their life. All of them find that what they believed or hoped to be true wasn't, and the shock of discovery if partly absorbed by food.
While at times the plot didn't flow quite smoothly, what kept my attention alert was the shared yearning for a connection with someone close to us. We often express that yearning in awkward ways, but it is a cry that wants to be heard and we should honor it in ourselves and others. One of the ways in which such cry materializes in the novel is the determination of Lorca to replicate a dish her chef mother has praises above anything else she has ever eaten. On the one hand the dish acquires mythical qualities, on the other we know it is a stand-in for something different, but we go along and cheer Lorca in her quest. She is helped by Victoria, a recently widowed Iraqi Jewish immigrant who used to run a restaurant.
There is plenty of food in the novel and the reading made me focus on how many different foods contribute to my culinary world. I am also an immigrant, so there are foods I got to know in my country of origin, Italy, and foods I met in my adoptive country and I use all of them in my kitchen. While I sometimes have nostalgia for a specific food item or dish, I find inspiration in what I have available and like to explore flavors that were unknown to me when I was growing up.
In honor of Victoria's Iraqi heritage, I thought it was time I made my own tahini and made it using toasted sesame seeds (semi di sesamo tostati). I then used it to make a sauce with which I dressed fagioli del Purgatorio (Purgatory Beans)3, small white beans grown on the volcanic soil of a beautiful region of Italy, around Lago di Bolsena4. I bought them from my trusted legume provider in Perugia5, attracted by their name. I later read about the century old tradition of Pranzo del Purgatorio in the town of Gradoli. Every year on Fat Thursday the group of men called the Fratellanza del Purgatorio goes around asking people for contributions, products that are then sold at auction to finance the Pranzo which occurs on Ash Wednesday and on whose menu the beans are prominently featured6.
The small beans cook relatively quickly, are firm in texture and delicate in flavor. I dressed them with tahini sauce, something that would probably raise a few eyebrows in their homeland, where they are served dressed with the local olive oil. Some finely diced Asian pear offers a nice lightly sweet contrast to the earthy beans and the intense tahini.
Ingredients for toasted sesame tahini:
- 1 cup /150 g / 5 1/4 ounces white sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Ingredients for the beans:
- 1 cup / 200 g / 7 ounces fagioli del Purgatorio or other small beans (see Notes below)
- 3 cups / 700 ml water
- A bay leaf
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- A 1-inch / 2.5 cm piece of kombu (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Ingredients for the tahini sauce:
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml tahini, homemade or store-bought
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml water
- 4 teaspoons / 20 ml fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 roasted garlic cloves, peeled and crushed OR 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- Asian pear (any variety)
Notes: You can use another variety of beans. The cooking time will vary. Also, you can purchase the tahini, rather than make your own, and follow the recipe starting from cooking the beans.
How to make toasted sesame tahini
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet on medium heat until they are tanned and fragrant. Shake the skillet often or stir the seeds with a spatula. This will take just a few minutes, so guard the seeds like a hawk: they will burn easily. Transfer the seeds to a plate and let cool completely.
Process the sesame seeds in a small food processor or blender until a thick paste forms. Add the olive oil and process until smooth. Add sea salt and process briefly to distribute. Transfer the tahini to a glass jar and refrigerate until ready to use.
How to cook the beans
Rinse the beans then place them in a saucepan with the water, bay leaf, garlic, kombu (if using) and salt. Bring the water to a lively boil quickly, and keep it there for two minutes, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, until they are tender. Taste them after 1 hour and estimate if/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 make tahini sauce
Rather than raw garlic, I prefer to use roasted garlic, whose flavor is more muted. As I use the oven often, it is easy for me to wrap a few unpeeled garlic cloves in foil and put them in the oven for 10-15 minutes, depending on the oven temperature.
Whiz all the tahini sauce ingredients until smooth. You will get more than you need for the beans, but this sauce can be used to dress roasted or steamed vegetables.
How to finish the dish
Drain the beans. (I use the bean broth in soups.) Add 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and stir well.
Finely dice the pear. Depending on its size, you probably won't need it all.
For each portion, place 1/2 cup of beans in a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of the diced pear and stir. Drizzle one tablespoon of the tahini sauce on the top. Serve with additional tahini sauce on the side.
The result may not be a vibrantly colored dish, but it is one that surprises with its flavor. It's not Purgatory, but a small, simple Paradise.
1 Federico García Lorca
2 Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer
3 Fagioli del Purgatorio (Slow Food)
4 Lake Bolsena
5 Drogheria Bavicchi
6 Pranzo del Purgatorio: This announcement of the 2014 edition says that the lunch prepared will feed 2,000 people. For it, 550 pounds of beans will be cooked, besides large quantities of various types of fish, as on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (Quaresima), traditionally no meat is consumed.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the insalata di fagioli del Purgatorio con tahina e pera asiatica 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.]
I contribute my dish also to My Legume Love Affair #101, the current edition of the popular, legume-centered event created by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, now organized by Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen, and hosted this month by me, Simona of briciole.