What a Week and Yes, a Recipe Too - White Beans and Greens!

The week before last was a banner one for healthier food policy. The week started off with First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing tighter new federal standards for marketing food to children.  On Thursday, she revealed proposed revisions to the "Nutrition Facts" label on packages of commercial products, which made it to this point in the review process in record time.  The changes are now open to comment for 90 days at the FDA. I think it will be very challenging for the food companies to object too strenuously to these changes, as the First Lady has achieved so much good will with these companies as well as with the press and the public with her health efforts. On Friday, Sam Kass capped the week off by announcing some healthier changes to WIC, the Department of Agriculture's supplemental nutrition program for "women, infants and children." These changes include an increase in benefits for fruits and vegetables and the allowance of yogurt and more whole grains.

What hard work and political finesse led up to last week's announcements! I suspect this was strategically planned to occur in the President's second term, but with enough time remaining to see these changes through.  A lesson that patience and timing (on top of a whole lot of hard work and forging connections) can be everything.

The proposal for the new Nutrition Facts label seems like a great boon for the savvy consumer.  I like that the calorie count will be in a larger font so I don't have to break out the reading glasses to see it.  I really like that information will be based on more realistic serving sizes, and not on arbitrarily created puny ones designed to trick us into underestimating how many calories we consume. Anyone who's read a label has seen instances where, for example,  a bag of chips that appears to be the amount one person would eat alongside a deli sandwich, reads 2 or even 2.5 "servings per container."  Seriously, I only know one person who could open that bag and eat only half the chips.

Another great new revision proposed will be the identification of added sugars.  We've had sugars on the label for years but added sugars would distinguish between the sugar that occurs naturally in the food from the sugar added to sweeten it.  For example, plain yogurt contains sugar, but sweetened yogurt contains that naturally occurring sugar plus however much sweetener a company adds.

I am a big fan of clear, usable information, but I do recognize that the public must still want to use the information.  I was surprised to read studies done recently that even where more markets were added to known food deserts, that people didn't change their eating habits, or that when calorie counts were added to the menus in chain restaurants, that people didn't change their orders.  My habits change when I read nutrition facts and calorie counts. For example, that really delicious quinoa and spelt scone at a European bakery chain - anyone else do a double take on that one? I even had a twitter conversation with someone I follow when she tweeted a photo of the menu with the shockingly high calorie count shown, but didn't identify the restaurant. I recognized it immediately because I'd had the same experience a few weeks earlier. Information is power, people!

So this recipe happened a couple of times lately, here in the healthier kitchen.  I came across this recipe in last month's Bon Appetit magazine, and even shared the link to it on Facebook because I was so excited about it. The dish has the flavor of the overnight cooked white beans one gets in Tuscany, but done in a more reasonable time frame and with the punch of healthy greens.  Yes, using dried beans makes everything take longer, but as long as you plan ahead and soak the beans the night before, this is a perfect weekend dish to make and enjoy all week. In fact, if you soak the beans tomorrow night, you can make this for the absurd cold snap forecast for Thursday.  I've streamlined the recipe a little so here is my adaptation.

Just make sure to soak the beans the night before!!

This makes a large amount of beans.  If you don't love them as much as I, try making a half batch.  If you do go for the full recipe, you can serve it the first time as a main dish or side dish to some other protein, and make a soup with the remainder.  To make the soup, add stock, either chicken or vegetable to the beans and greens to thin it out and throw in some already cooked tiny pasta shape.  Serve with the same drizzle of olive oil and shaving of Parmesan as usual.

White Beans and Greens

(adapted from Bon Appetit)

Serves 6 - 8

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 anchovy fillets, drained
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
scant 1/4 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
a few turns of freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes (if you don't have Aleppo, use 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes), more if you like heat
1 sprig rosemary
1 pound dried cannellini or gigante beans
1 pound kale, chard, spinach or mustard greens (or a mix!), cleaned and ribs and stems removed and coarsely chopped
4 cups arugula or watercress
juice of 1/2 lemon, more if it's particularly small or dry
Parmesan cheese to grate on top

1.  Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add in the anchovies and stir until they just start to dissolve.  Add the garlic and stir into the anchovies until they dissolve completely.

2.  Add onions into the pan, along with the salt and pepper.  Let cook until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the Aleppo pepper and stir again. Let cook another 2 or 3 minutes.

3.  Add the rosemary, beans, and 8 cups of water.  Raise heat on burner to let this come to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  This will cook for about 2 or 3 hours until the beans get soft and creamy.  You might need to add another cup or two of water if the pan contents start to look a little dry.

4.  With the back of a large spoon or with a potato masher, crush about 1/4 of the beans and mix well.  Add the greens and mix in and let cook until all the greens are wilted and incorporated.

4.  Add the lemon juice and stir.  If it's really thick and dry, add a splash more water.

5.  Top individual servings with a grating of Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good quality olive oil.  Serve with slices of a baguette or country Italian bread.