Yesterday was officially the first day of autumn so pulling out the slow cooker seemed like the perfect way to welcome in the new season. You really can't beat coming home after a long day at work to a hearty, comforting dish, ready and waiting to be served, with appetising cooking smells wafting around the house. I'd been invited to take part in a foodie challenge by To Tuscany, a travel company that offers charming, private villas in Italy’s most famous region, Chianti. They challenged me to create my own Tuscan-inspired recipe, using typical flavours and influences from Italy.
Tuscan food is what I would call peasant food, and that is by no means derogatory. The region instantly makes me thing of rustic soups, stews and casseroles, made with fresh local produce, relying on the natural flavours of the food rather than complicated seasonings or spices. Forget nouveau cuisine with three carrot sticks and a slice of cucumber artistically arranged on a plate - this is belly-filling, soul-warming comfort food at its best.
Cannellini beans are often used in Tuscany - in fact, Tuscans are sometimes called mangiafagioli or bean eaters ! - so I paired those with a cheap, no-frills cut of meat (pork belly) and some in-season vegetables : tomatoes, carrots, courgettes and onions. The result was simple but simply delizioso !
Tuscan slow-cooked pork belly and beans
250g dried cannellini beans
a piece of pork belly (about 400g)
2 large onions
2 cloves of garlic
3tsp semi-dry sage
freshly ground salt and pepper
1 tin tomatoes
1 glass white Chianti wine
Soak the beans in cold water overnight. They're supposed to be soaked for 12 hours according to the instructions on the box, but as I was going to be cooking them in the slow cooker for several hours, I actually only let them soak for 3 hours, but this will depend on your cooking method.
Drain and rinse the beans and throw them in the bottom of the slow cooker. Peel the onions and carrots, chop them into large chunks and arrange them around the sides of the slow cooker.
Chop the tomatoes into quarters and roughly chop the courgettes then toss them in too.
Crush the garlic in a little dish and mix in the sage. Spread this paste over the pork belly and transfer to the slow cooker.
Pour in a glass of Chianti (I used white wine as I already had a cheeky bottle open, but you could use red if you prefer !) and season with salt and pepper. Cook on the high setting for 5 hours or the low setting for 8 hours, or whatever suits you - the slow cooker has to be the most forgiving cooking method ever in terms of timing !
A couple of hours before serving, I added a tin of tomatoes - I went for Cirio's tomato fillets which have a chunkier texture than chopped tomatoes. You can add extra water (or wine) if necessary but the slow cooker always keeps all the steam and moisture in so you don't usually need to add much liquid at all.
Once the pork has cooked through and started falling apart, stir the contents of the slow cooker every half hour or so to mix everything up, help the flavours mingle and make sure everything is covered in the rich tomatoey sauce. Serve with a chunk of crusty bread and feel free to use it to mop up every last bit of sauce from your plate !
Disclosure : This is my entry in the To Tuscany blogger competition - I want to win a week in one of their Tuscany villas!