Some people collect records, cars, or shoes. I collect "greens and beans" (or, "beans and greens," if you'd rather), as a tasty lunchtime option at local restaurants. This classic Italian dish combining sautéed leafy greens (such as spinach) with white beans is perfect in its simplicity, with a delicious mélange of flavors and ridiculously healthy nutritional value. The second I shovel a forkful into my mouth, I can feel my muscles start to bulge and an urge to cry out, "I yam what I yam!"
"The funny thing about Italian cooking," explains Dan Bartow, chef/owner of Legends of the North Shore, "is that everyone does it differently and there really is no 'traditional.'"
As with much immigrant peasant fare, greens and beans is a dish designed to make use of the odds and ends of one's garden or fridge; potential greens include spinach, escarole, chard and collards, as well as the tops of carrots and beets that, sadly, are too often discarded. Even lowly iceberg lettuce can transcend. (I cannot help but wonder if this dish might not be a culinary solution to our Japanese knotweed problems.)
Chef Bartow favors fresh field greens, baby spinach and spring salad mix over the more conventional escarole. Bartow sautées the greens in olive oil, adds garlic and cannellini beans; he then adds chicken stock and imported grated pecorino romano cheese, letting a sauce develop around the slightly crunchy greens. Served with his daily-made focaccia bread, Bartow's dish is a perfect lunch that won't leave one logy during the afternoon shift.
Got a bigger hunger? Try it topped with cajun chicken, which another Legends staffer claims is virtually a full dinner entrée.
Indeed, meat is a popular add-in. At Zarra's restaurant in Oakland, a guarded-family-recipe sausage can be added to the greens and beans for that extra "oomph."
But the meat-free version also has its champion. At Colangelo's in the Strip District, Denese Colangelo cooks up an exceptional vegetarian greens and beans. She starts with baby spinach cooked down in a special roasted-garlic infused olive oil; she substitutes white wine for chicken stock, and also adds roasted red potatoes and oven-roasted tomatoes. Washed down with a shot of espresso from La Prima next door, the weary worker is guaranteed to clock back in like Popeye – "strong to the finitch."
Legends of the North Shore, 500 East North Ave., North Side. 412-321-8000
Zarra's, 3887 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. 412-682-8296
Colangelo's, 207 21st St., Strip District. 412-281-7080