I never used to cook dried beans.  The effort involved seemed like too much planning and pot-watching for something I could so easily and cheaply buy in a can.

Then one evening, browsing my cookbooks for a novel way to use up some leftover carrots and celery, I happened upon a bean gratin in one of Alice Waters’s books and figured I’d give it a try.  As it turns out, the soaking and simmering aren’t such a big deal and the results are pretty wonderful.

The ingredients are all inexpensive things I always have on hand: dried beans and canned tomatoes in the pantry, onions, garlic, and stale bread on the counter, carrots and celery in the fridge, and sage growing rampantly against the back porch (at least until late November).  Tight times call for frugal measures, and this gratin is one of the most economical meals you can cook.  And, as is the case with most simply prepared foods, the kids like it.

Navy Bean Gratin

Adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

Yield:  Serves 6

1 1/4 c. dried navy beans, soaked overnight in 1 qt. water

Kosher or sea salt

1/2 c. olive oil, divided

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

1 small stalk celery, peeled and diced

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped

1/2 c. chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned

3/4 c. toasted breadcrumbs *

Drain soaked beans and place them in a saucepan.  Cover beans by 2 inches with fresh, cold water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Skim as much of the froth from the surface as possible, lower the heat, and simmer the beans until tender but not falling apart, about an hour and twenty minutes.  (Sidebar: there is no such thing as an al dente bean!  If you can’t crush a cooked bean between your thumb and index finger, it’s not done yet.  Also, never salt beans until the end of their cooking time.  It makes them tough.)  Add salt to taste, remove pan from heat, and let beans cool in their cooking liquid — this helps keep the beans intact.  At this point, if you wish, you can transfer the beans and their liquid to a container and store them in the fridge for a day or two.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Warm a saucepan over medium heat.  Drizzle in a few tablespoons of olive oil, then add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very soft and very lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Don’t skimp on this step:  onions take at least 10 minutes to really break down (and, like the beans, don’t salt them until they’re very tender or they won’t soften properly).  If they start to brown too quickly, turn the heat down and stir more attentively.  Add the garlic and sage, season with salt, and cook a few minutes more, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned.  Stir in the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, until the tomatoes loosen and their juices evaporate.

Remove from heat, stir in the drained beans, and add a pinch more salt if necessary.  Rub a 2-quart casserole dish with a few tablespoons olive oil, spoon in the bean mixture, and pour in enough reserved bean cooking liquid to almost cover.  (Save the leftover liquid — it makes a great soup base.)  Drizzle with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes.

I love these beans with pureed sweet potatoes or winter squash and braised greens.

* To make this gratin gluten-free, use crumbs made from gluten-free bread or — I read this recently and thought it was an ingenious idea — savory waffles!  Or forget the crumbs and just simmer the beans with the cooked vegetables and a little bean cooking liquid for 10-15 minutes to meld flavors.