Our Cook the Books Club selection, the novel The Language of Flowers1 by Vanessa Diffenbaugh takes place in places familiar to me: San Francisco and Napa Valley. The book tells the story of young Victoria, who, after bouncing from one foster family to the next, ages out of the system and ends up homeless. The novel goes back and forth between the present and a time in the past when Victoria's foster mother was Elizabeth, a winegrower in Napa, who wanted to be a caring mother for Victoria, though the girl's behavior is quite challenging.
In the present, Victoria finds work in a flower shop in San Francisco (owned by Renata), where her gift for working with flowers and in particular matching flowers to people shines. She learned the language of flowers (linguaggio dei fiori) from Elizabeth, who grew up in a flower farm. For the most part, the story kept my attention: it is difficult not to hope for Victoria to finally establish some healthy relationships, and Diffenbaugh's writing is appealing, delicate and evocative.
The book includes a dictionary associating flowers to their meaning. At the farmers' market I saw some beautiful fennel, a plant that blooms tall with flowers similar to those of parsley (both plants are umbellifers, they have umbrella-shaped flowers). According to the dictionary, the meaning of fennel is strength. I like that!
Around the same time, one evening I had dinner with a friend and we shared a dish called White Bean Ragout2 (white beans braised with fennel, wild mushrooms, tomatoes, herb brown butter, charred broccolini). It was excellent and made me decide to create a personal version using dry Coco Nero (black coco) beans3, beech mushrooms, fennel and oven-roasted tomatoes.
I loved the result and immediately made a second batch, relying on Early Girl tomatoes' long season. All the ingredients came from the farmers' market, which I consider a bit like the flower market where Renata gets her supplies and where Victoria meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew and the only person who speaks the language of flowers at her level.
Another excellent stew added to my repertoire! The recipe can be made with other varieties of beans that are good in stews. After I ran out of Coco Nero beans, I used beans riso bianco di Sarconi ("white rice" from Sarconi, a town in Basilicata, Italy). When the supply of Early Girl tomatoes I have been relying on finally dries up, I plan to try using used canned fire-roasted tomatoes.
- 4 ounces / 113 g dry Coco Nero beans (or a variety of beans good in stews)
- 2 cups / 475 ml water
- 1/2 small onion, halved
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- A small bay leaf
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 pound / 450 g Early Girl tomatoes OR one 14.5 ounces / 411 g can of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces / 113 g red onion, finely diced or quartered and thinly sliced (clean weight)
- 4 ounces / 113 g fennel, stalk trimmed, quartered, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise (clean weight)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 ounces / 113 g brown beech mushrooms
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- A few grinds of the pepper mill, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon minced fennel fronds
Notes: 1. I do not soak dry beans before cooking them. 2. The beans and roasted tomatoes can be prepared ahead of time.
Place the beans in a saucepan with the water, onion, garlic, bay leaf and salt. Bring the water to a lively boil, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, until they are tender. Taste them once the skin is no longer wrinkled and estimate if/how much longer they should cook. Check the beans at regular intervals and add some hot water, as needed to keep all the beans moist.
Let the beans cool in their cooking broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them. Let the beans rest in their broth until ready to use.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 F / 177 C. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat. Halve each tomato crosswise and place on the baking sheet. Roast for 1 hour. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and transfer the tomatoes to a bowl. Once cool, cut each piece in half or into quarters (depending on size). Note: skip this step if using canned fire-roasted tomatoes and just add the tomatoes where the recipe instructs you to do it.
In a Dutch oven or sauté pan, warm up the olive oil on medium heat, turn down the heat to medium-low and cook the onion for 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the fennel, stir and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often. Cover and continue cooking until the fennel is tender.
Add the garlic, stir and cook for one minute. Add the chopped tomatoes, stir, cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes, regulating the heat so as to maintain a gentle boil.
Halve the mushroom cluster and cut off the base, making sure not to remove any edible part. With your hands, separate the cluster into individual mushrooms. Set aside.
Add the beans and their broth to the pan. If it is dry, add 1/4 cup / 60 ml of water, stir, cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes, regulating the heat so as to maintain a gentle boil.
Add the mushrooms and stir well. Cover and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes, stirring well after 2 minutes.
Sprinkle the sea salt and pepper, then taste to adjust salt. Sprinkle the fennel fronds and stir. Take the pan off the heat and serve the stew warm. Enjoy!
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the stufato di fagioli, finocchi e funghi audio file [mp3].
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FTC disclosure: I have received the table 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.