Friday, March 16, 2012

Spanish-style vegetarian white bean stew

Bean dishes are one of my favorite comfort foods, as you can probably already tell. I think it goes all the way back to my childhood, when we would eat a Spanish white bean and pork stew (yup, I was an omnivore back then) - which my grandfather said was my great-great-grandmother's recipe. It starts with a base of Spanish sofrito* - generous amounts of onions, garlic, and tomatoes sauteed in olive oil, to which white beans and pork pieces are added to slowly simmer in water until the beans are tender and the liquid is thick.

I learned from my late grandfather to generously douse good quality extra-virgin olive oil on top of your beans and dip warm bread into it, and I've always loved it this way (despite my rice-loving Filipino self). I still make it to this day (sans pork) and even my Indian husband likes it. I add a little bit of pimenton de la vera (Spanish smoked sweet paprika) to add more depth of flavor, and it does wonders to add complexity to this dish. I find that the regular paprika just doesn't cut it.

Beans... ah, such a humble, yet powerhouse ingredient. It's the main source of protein in our household. It also has other nutrients/ benefits like iron, magnesium, and fiber. Starting from dry beans is crucial here, because you want the beans to absorb the flavors as they cook.

And it's such a comfort to warm up to a hearty bowl of beans, as I am taken back to my childhood...

However, this might be one of my last recipe posts for hearty bean stews (at least till fall) as we've been having 60's/70's degree weather in Cleveland this week! Time to lighten up my recipes :)

I'm calling this stew "Spanish-style" and not "Spanish" because the original recipe calls for either pork pieces, chorizo, morcilla, ham, etc. There are many variations of this recipe online too such as this recipe for Fabada Asturiana.

Spanish-style White Bean Stew

  • 1 lb (about 2 cups) dried white beans: Great Northern, cannellini, alubia blanca (Spanish white long beans) or judion beans if you can get it - soaked overnight
  • olive oil
  • 1 white or yellow onion, chopped
  • a lot of garlic (by your definition of "a lot" - honestly I lost count with mine, so I'm not specifying quantities here)
  • about 3 cups of chopped tomatoes, fresh or packaged chopped tomatoes in juice. (if you get packaged ones, try the San Marzano variety which is an heirloom tomato)
  • kosher salt and pepper
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon pimenton de la vera**, or Spanish smoked sweet paprika (this makes all the difference to get that smoky, earthy flavor; start with half a teaspoon first if you're unsure)
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
  • water or vegetable broth - enough to cover the beans about an inch
  • 1 whole dried bay leaf

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions and a pinch of salt (season as you go, a la Barefoot Contessa) and black pepper. Let the onions cook until soft, then add the tomatoes, garlic, and paprika. Let this mixture cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until it has an almost saucy consistency  (this is your sofrito). You can also add the tomato paste halfway through when you are cooking the onion-tomato-garlic mixture.


Add the beans and enough water or vegetable broth to cover the beans by about an inch or so. If you are a "seasoned" bean eater, you can use the soaking water as it has vitamins and minerals from the beans. Add a small pinch of salt, as well as the bay leaf (which you might be interested to note, helps make the beans more digestible if you are a non-seasoned bean eater) and the pimenton de le vera. Let it come up to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. Check it every so often to make sure it is not drying out, and add more liquid as needed - but not too much. I generally prefer the liquid to end up thick and velvety because that's how I remember it from my childhood, but you can certainly make it more soupy if that's what you like.

I know some sources say not to add acidic ingredients (vinegars, tomato, citrus) before the beans are tender as it can toughen the beans or slow down the cooking. But, this is a slow-cooked dish anyway and I let it be on the stovetop for a few hours at a simmer or cook in a slow cooker. And I just don't know any other way for this dish, especially since I want the beans to absorb the sofrito flavor from the start. 

When the beans are tender and the stew has reached your desired consistency, check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. If you want a thicker stew, you can mash some beans against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon.

Ladle into bowls, and douse the top with some good quality extra-virgin olive oil and a small pinch of pimenton de la vera. Serve with warm crusty bread for dipping.

Spanish-style white bean stew

* A sofrito is used as a base for many dishes, and there are several different versions depending on the dish you are making. Some versions call for chopped green bell pepper, or Anaheim pepper. The tomato-onion-garlic is the most basic one, I think, and I remember loving this flavor base. I remember in my childhood, we would sometimes thicken it to almost a relish or chutney kind of consistency, to serve alongside a humble dish of poached chicken and vegetables (pochero). Anyway, the sofrito is key for this bean dish, so don't shortcut this step! If you want to make these beans in a slow cooker, just remember to cook the sofrito separately or in advance and then add it to the slow cooker when you start.

** Here are a few sources for pimenton de la vera (remember to choose the sweet smoked one - there is also Spanish hot smoked paprika and bittersweet smoked paprika, which you can try in this dish - let me know how it goes - but I prefer the sweet smoked variety)

Hot Paella
La Tienda
Penzeys also has Spanish smoked paprika but the website doesn't specify if it is sweet or hot or bittersweet - but if you have a store near you, you could check it out at the store or ask the manager.

I use the La Chinata brand of pimenton which I got at TJ Maxx (or was it Home Goods or Marshalls? Can't remember) - you never know what you might find in these discount stores.

The shipping for those "specialty" beans I mentioned above (judion, alubia blanca) are a little pricey, but since it's a flat rate, see if you might split the cost with a friend/fellow bean aficionado near you.

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