France has a number of famous dishes featuring white beans. Several come immediately to mind : gigot de mouton à la bretonne and cassoulet de Carcassonne (leg of lamb with white beans in the Britanny style and a casserole of white beans and sausage from the southwest). These, while being substantial dishes of an earthy nature, tend to be complex both in preparation and in the number of ingredients.
If you are eating white beans en famille anywhere in France, you are much more likely to have a simple vegetarian dish of haricots à écosser prepared with some sort of fat, herbs, and a small amount of other vegetables for flavoring.
Ecosser means “to shell” and the grain rather than the fleshy part of the bean pod is eaten. Haricots verts, particularly haricots verts fins, are young green beans (string beans) harvested before they are fully mature. This puts them at the expensive end of the scale. But shelled white beans, either fresh or dried, are an economy item for the thrifty French housewife.
In Provence you are more likely to find fresh white beans used in season; vast quantities are sold in the open markets and the beans are then shelled at home. You can substitute a can of white beans if you are in a hurry, but fresh is considered better.
Surprisingly, this is one Provençal recipe that is generally made with butter rather than the traditional olive oil of the region. The reason for this is that the butter will be better absorbed and integrated into the flavor of the beans. Olive oil tends to impose its character on a dish.
Another surprise in the following recipe is that while it does include the tomatoes and garlic so often used in Provence, it does not feature herbes de Provence, just a bit of bay leaf. The combination of onions and cloves is traditional, especially in a dish based on a bland vegetable.
2-1/2 pounds of fresh white beans in the shell
4 tablespoons of butter
4 medium onions
2 cloves of garlic
6 medium tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tablespoon anchovy paste (optional)
Shell the beans. Peel and quarter the tomatoes and remove their seeds. Peel the onions (do not slice) and stick a clove in each one (this lets you discard the cloves later). Thread the garlic cloves on a round toothpick (ditto for the garlic, you want just the flavor). Heat the butter in a heavy kettle and sauté the onions. When they began to take color, add 3 quarts of water. Let this come to a boil and then add everything else. Lower the heat and cook very slowly for about an hour, making sure there is always enough liquid. Stir if necessary. Check the seasoning and cook another 30 minutes or until the beans are soft. Discard the garlic and the onions with their cloves. Serve very hot.
If you can’t be bothered with all this, or if you are in a hurry, you can always heat a can of white beans in a can of tomato sauce.