The Italians have a phrase for it: la cucina povera. And like most things, it sounds better in Italian. It roughly translates into peasant cooking or “cooking of the poor” but it goes beyond that – it’s about getting the most out of ordinary, everyday ingredients. In Italy, think of dishes like panzanella – a deceptively simple Tuscan salad made of bread and tomatoes. Or aquacotta – literally cooked water which transforms a few humble vegetables, stale bread (and water) into a deliciously moreish soup.
For our grandparents – no matter where they were from – this kind of cooking was a way of life. Nothing was wasted and nothing was lavish or over the top. My grandmother saved the grease from frying bacon and used it as her cooking fat. It was economical and oh, it happened to make her green beans taste sublime.
It’s a style of cooking we lose track of when everything is magically in season and we’re spoiled for choice when we go to the shops. We start to rely more on expensive ingredients rather than creativity.
But January is the perfect time to get back in touch with our inner cucina povera. We’ve splurged on rib roasts, turkeys, champagne and caviar over the holidays. January is a time to literally tighten our belts. The surprise is that it’s intensely satisfying to make do with less – to rummage around the fridge or larder until inspiration strikes.
With the weather less than conducive to impromptu shopping visits, it’s nice to hunker down and know that with a bit of creativity, we can come up with something that satisfies our stomachs. This dish of black eyed beans is a case in point. All it requires is a tin of beans, a tin of chopped tomatoes, an onion and some Greek yoghurt. Hopefully you’ve got a clove of garlic kicking around and spices but if not improvise with what you do have. The result is rich and hearty, with absolutely nothing impoverished about it.
Black eyed beans with caramelised onions, yoghurt and cumin-infused oil
The basics of this are a tin of beans and a tin of tomatoes. You couldn’t ask for simpler than that, could you? The caramelised onions add a nice sweet/sour touch thanks to the addition of the vinegar. If you don’t have cumin seeds, you could infuse the oil with fennel seeds or skip altogether. The yoghurt is thinned slightly with the addition of a bit of water so you get a nice, pourable consistency, like a single cream.
Serves 3-4 as a side dish
3 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 red onion, sliced thinly
Splash of vinegar (balsamic or wine)
1 clove garlic, minced
400g tin of black eyed beans, drained and rinsed
400g tin of crushed tomatoes, drained
3 tbsp Greek yoghurt plus 1-2 tbsp warm water
Red chilli pepper flakes (optional)
Toast the cumin seeds in a saucepan for a minute or so over medium heat until you can smell them – be careful they don’t burn. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil on to the seeds and heat until it’s warm and infused with the cumin seed aroma. Remove the cumin seed oil from the pan and set aside until you’re ready to plate up the dish.
Next place the pan back on the heat, add a tablespoon of olive oil and the thinly sliced onions with a generous pinch of salt. Cover and cook over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook until the onions are soft. Remove the lid and increase the heat, stirring constantly. You want the onions to be well browned and caramelised. Add the splash of vinegar and stir to coat. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Heat the last tablespoon of olive oil in the pan, Add the garlic and cook over medium heat for a minute before adding the black eyed beans and crushed tomatoes. Warm and place in a serving bowl. Top with the caramelised onions. Drizzle with the thinned yoghurt and finally the cumin seed-infused olive oil. Garnish with red chilli pepper flakes (if using). Serve hot or at room temperature.
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