Dried peas and beans, being rather on the dull side, respond readily – like a good many dull people – to the right contacts.Irma S. Rombauer, ‘about legumes’ in Joy of Cooking (1931), p.286
I agree with Irma Rombauer that (dried) beans can be rather boring unless they are prepared well and combined with the right ingredients. Luckily, beans are very versatile and they are easily paired with other ingredients. Indeed, there’s nothing like the simple, but classic combination of beans and tomato (sauce), and in winter I love a good brown bean soup with smoky bacon (and pig’s trotters!), and beans always do well in a great summer salad with corn, crunchy cabbage and avocado. All good. But what about seafood? Am I totally wrong to assume that for many people the only type of shell that gets anywhere near beans is a taco shell? Fair enough, but trust me when I say that actual shells such as clams, mussels, or cockles are the true ‘right contacts’ for beans: while the beans give some heartiness to the delicate clam meat, the subtle sweet and slightly briny flavor of sea-bivalves really elevates the humble bean to greater heights!
I know. I didn’t invent this marvelous combination of clams and beans. And – shame on me – I definitely only really started thinking about combining seafood and legumes some time last year, after leafing through Christina Mouratoglou and Adrien Carré’s recipe book Mazi: Modern Greek Food (2018), which features some perfectly grilled calamari with black-eyed beans (p.187) as one of their signature dishes.
Besides, ‘beans and clams (fabes con almejas)’-dishes are quite common in Spanish cuisine(Basque and Asturian in particular, I believe, but correct me if I’m wrong). In Spain, clams and beans are often served as either a stew, or a soup, and the accompanying ingredients can vary: usually, it’s just the basic clams and beans merely accompanied by some herbs; at times, a handful of vegetables is added to the stew; and quite often there are some chopped up pieces of chorizo hiding in the dish to give the stew some extra oomph.
In my version of ‘fabes con almejas’, the bivalves are shortly sautéed and stewed with some onion, carrot and fennel bulb (like I do with my classic Dutch mussels here). The sweetness of the carrot and onion, and the mild aniseed-y flavor of the fennel not only perfectly match the salty bivalves, but they perfectly complement the beans too! There is a good amount of lemon juice and zest in there as well to cut through the sweetness and freshen up the dish a little. Finally, instead of chorizo, I added a bit of fragrant rosemary and spicy red chili pepper for that little bit of extra oomph (but, of course, you can decide to add all of the oomph)!
Note: You can use any kind of medium to large size clam: venus clams, smooth clams, manila clams, and even cockles, or mussels are never a bad idea.
Tip #1: Forgot to soak your dried beans overnight, but don’t want to use canned beans? Add dried beans to a pot with water and bring to a boil. Cook the beans for 1 – 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Cover the pot with a lid and let the beans soak in the hot water for one hour, or as long as you have before starting.
Rombauer, Irma S. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, New York, 1995.
The drawing of ‘clams and beans‘ used in this post is drawn by me.
White Bean Stew with Clams / Fabes con Almejas
- 250g dried medium white beans, soaked overnight (or use 450g of canned beans)
- 1kg medium to large clams, mussels, or cockles (use about 600 - 700g when using small clams)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 red chili pepper
- 400g fennel bulb, with fronds
- 1 small carrot (about 100g)
- 2 sprigs of rosemary
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced (about 60ml)
- 200ml water (use reserved cooking liquid from the beans if you used dried beans)
- Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- Bread for serving (optional)
MethodNote: preparation time listed does not include soaking and de-gritting times.
- Place dried beans in a bowl covered with water and soak in the refrigerator for about 8 hours, or overnight.
- Clean and de-grit the clams: scrub the clams well to remove all dirt on the outside of the shells. Fill up a large bowl with about 2 liters of non-chlorinated water and 70 grams of sea salt (no additives) to mimic sea water. Put a colander inside the bowl to keep the clams from re-consuming the grit and sand they spit out. Add the clams without much overlapping and cover the bowl with a cloth or with some aluminum foil. Place the bowl in a cold, dark place for at least 1 - 2 hours if possible.
- Boil the beans: Place the pre-soaked beans in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and boil until tender (most small to medium beans will cook in 45 – 60 minutes). Drain the beans but reserve 200ml of the cooking liquid and set aside. [In the case of using canned beans, they don’t need to be boiled, only rinsed. In the case of using canned beans use 200ml fresh water in step 6 of this recipe].
- In the meantime, prepare the other ingredients: finely chop the onion and garlic cloves. Cut the chili pepper into thin rings. Peel the carrot and very finely dice it. Cut the fronds off the fennel and keep aside to use later, cut the bottom off the fennel and remove the heart. Cut the bulb into thin slices.
- To start the stew: Heat olive oil in a high-rimmed frying pan on medium heat. Fry the chopped garlic, chopped onion, diced carrot, the sliced chili pepper and the sprigs of rosemary until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Add the chopped fennel and cook and stir for another 5 minutes until the fennel becomes slightly translucent.
- Cooking the clams: Add the 200ml of reserved cooking liquid from the beans (or fresh water if you are using canned beans), lemon juice and zest and the cleaned and de-gritted clams to the pot. Cook until all, or most clams have opened for about 5 minutes (cooking time depends on the size of the clams).
- To finish the stew: Add the cooked beans and the finely chopped parsley to the pot with the vegetables and clams. Stir and cook until the beans are heated through (about 3 minutes). Taste the stew and add salt and pepper according to taste (be careful with the salt as the clams can be quite salty already). Drizzle on a little bit of extra olive oil and sprinkle on the reserved fennel fronds. Serve immediately with some crusty bread on the side.