Jim Dixon’s DIY Dish: Nonna Carlo’s Beans With Cabbage and Polenta

Fred Carlo told me his favorite dish was made by his grandmother. She’d cook a pot of beans, then add Savoy cabbage and polenta and let it all simmer together to form a thick, chunky stew.

Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty food business, Wellspent Market. Jim’s always loved to eat, and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.

Nonna Carlo’s Beans with Cabbage and Polenta

I sold olive oil at the Portland Farmers Market for more than 15 years, and most of the time my booth was next to Fred Carlo’s. Portland’s original master of Italian-style meat products, Fred still grills his custom sausages and makes sandwiches with onions and peppers at his market stand. I would inhale the savory aroma of frying onions, peppers, and pork from his grill while we’d “sweeten” our coffee from a flask and swap stories about the things we loved to eat.

He told me his favorite dish was made by his grandmother. She’d cook a pot of beans, then add Savoy cabbage and polenta and let it all simmer together to form a thick, chunky stew. It’s the same approach used to make what the Tuscans call polentina, a vegetable stew thickened with a little polenta, or jota from the Veneto, a hearty polenta-thickened soup made with smoked pork, beans, and sauerkraut.

But it’s really just comfort food, soft and spoonable and best eaten from a big bowl with a shower of grated Parmigiano, a healthy drizzle of good olive oil, and freshly ground black pepper. Or serve it alongside a grilled Italian sausage.

1 cup borlotti, cranberry, or pinto beans

2 cloves garlic, chopped

6-8 leaves fresh sage, chopped

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 cups water

2 teaspoons kosher salt

¼ head Savoy cabbage, chopped

¼ cup polenta

More extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and black pepper to finish

Combine the beans, garlic, sage, olive oil, water, and salt in a 4-6 quart saucepan, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are tender, 90 minutes to 2 hours.

Chop the cabbage into roughly 1-inch pieces and add to the beans. Stir in the polenta, cover and cook for about 1 minute.

Remove the lid and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck polenta (this technique works for cooking grits, plan polenta, oatmeal or any other grains that tend to stick; you can also add more hot water, about ¼ cup at a time, while stirring). Let the pot simmer gently, stirring and scraping every 10-15 minutes, for 45 minutes.

Taste and add salt if needed. Serve hot with a drizzle of olive oil, freshly grated Parmigiano, and cracked black pepper.