Tuscans love beans. They eat them as part of many of the famous Tuscan soups like ribollita, they eat them in a salad with tuna as an antipasto, and, of course, they eat them as a contorno, or side dish, especially with grilled meats like the mythical bistecca alla fiorentina. In fact, they are so well known in Italy for their love of legumes that Tuscans are sometimes jocularly called mangiafagioli, or ‘bean eaters’.
I love Tuscan cuisine not only because I love legumes of all sorts, but also because it embraces the qualities that, for me, epitomize good eating: it is simple but delicious, rustic yet elegant, hearty yet healthy. This dish, fagioli all’uccelletto, or beans made in the manner of little birds, is a perfect example.
- 500g (1 lb) cannellini beans, boiled or canned
- 250-500g (1/2-1 lb) canned or fresh tomatoes
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- A few fresh sage leaves
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Begin by making a simple tomato sauce: gently sauté a few garlic cloves and some fresh sage leaves in olive oil. When the garlic is just beginning to brown, add either fresh or canned tomatoes, which you will have puréed through a food mill, and let it simmer, always on gentle heat, until the tomatoes have reduced nicely to a saucy consistency.
Add the boiled or canned cannellini beans, season with salt and peppers, and allow them to simmer in the tomato sauce for about 10 minutes or so, just long enough for them to absorb the flavor of the sauce.
Test for seasoning, adjust if need be, and serve your fagioli all’uccelletto immediately. I like to drizzle a little olive oil over the top before serving.
Fagioli all’uccelletto, as mentioned, is a usually served as a side dish. It goes particularly well with roasted or grilled meats, and is a staple of our backyard barbecues—that is, when I don’t opt for the equally delicious fagioli al fiasco. It is a forgiving dish, and because of the assertive flavors of the tomato sauce, I find that canned beans work very well here. Just make sure that you buy a brand that is not too ‘mushy’ straight out of the can, and then rinse and drain them well before adding them to the sauce. If you use canned tomatoes as well, the dish is extraordinarily quick to make—I usually use the side burner on my barbecue to make it while the meats are grilling. It is done in about the same time.
As far as measurements go, the key is the ratio (by weight) of tomatoes to beans: if you want a rather ‘saucy’ dish, then use a ratio of 1:1. For a drier, less tomato-y version, add more beans, up to a 1:2 ratio. Although cannellini are the beans typically associated with fagioli all’uccelletto, of course many different kinds of beans—and other legumes—lend themselves well to this treatment. Feel free to experiment!
According to Florentine gastronome Giuliano Bugialli, the curious name of this dish comes from the manner in which little songbirds were traditionally cooked.
By the way, Il mangiafagioli is the title of a well-known painting by the Baroque painter Annibale Carracci. If you’re ever in Rome, it hangs in the Galleria Colonna. It is also featured on the cover of various editions of the iconic Italian cookbook, Il Talismano della Felicita’.