“Good night, little beans,” my mother joked as she covered the bowl with a dishcloth. In the morning, the beans had doubled in size and would be ready to be boiled, then dressed with garlic and extra virgin olive oil. A huge Tupperware full of them would be devoured throughout the week, particularly in the summer months when it was nice to eat something both cold and savory all at once.
A batch of sleeping beans makes a wonderful side dish, a unique contribution to a BBQ or picnic, the perfect topping for a salad of dark greens, or simply enjoyed with an extra swirl of olive oil, a piece of crusty bread, and a hunk of hard cheese.
Sleeping beans are a staple of any table in Tuscany and Tuscans are jokingly referred to as mangiafagioli (pronounced “mon-juh-fuh-joe-lee”), or “bean eaters.” On menus, they appear as a contorni served late in the meal during the vegetable course. In a region known for producing absolutely exquisite olive oils, Tuscans drown their beans in the golden liquid. I do the same and believe that Americans need to be far more liberal with their use of olive oil. Those leftover fears from the 1980s about butter and olive oil really need to go.
Sleeping beans didn’t appear in Italy until the New World explorations of the sixteenth century. (Once again, much of Italian cuisine might rightly be called Mexican food.) In Tuscany, they are most traditionally prepared with sage and garlic. In Sicily, hot peppers are added, and the beans are mixed into pasta. Naples is famous for a pasta and white bean soup you may know with a Neapolitan accent called “pasta fazool.”
Now that it’s hot outside and I’m enjoying fresh vegetables from my weekly CSA, I put a pot of beans to sleep last night. I’ve been tinkering with different herbs and olive oils for this recipe my entire adult life and my definitive sleeping bean salad features wild oregano from Calabria or Sicily. It can be found in Italian specialty stores and it’s absolutely worth the effort.
But if that’s impossible, inspect the jars at your grocery store for Turkish oregano, which also grows wild and has its flavor intensified by the hot Mediterranean winds. The oregano in your standard McCormick tin is Mexican, and is better suited for chili and salsa. If regular oregano is Debbie Reynolds, then wild oregano is Sophia Loren.
Sleeping Bean Salad
Cook time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total time: 6 servings
- 1 pound (16 oz.) great white northern beans
- 2 garlic cloves
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (If you’ve been hoarding a fancy bottle, this is the dish to use it in.)
- 2 teaspoons wild oregano
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon salt
Put your beans to sleep overnight in a large bowl with enough cool water to cover by at least an inch. The next day, rinse the beans and pour into a large stockpot. Again, cover the beans with enough water and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour or until al dente. Set aside to cool.
While the beans are simmering, heat an oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees F and roast the garlic cloves as directed for 45 minutes.
Drain the cooled beans and mix with the olive oil, wild oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, and roasted garlic.
Though you can eat sleeping bean salad immediately, the flavors will meld as it sits in your refrigerator, tasting its very best two or three days after prep.