The beginning of a new year is always a great time to pause and reflect on our hopes and goals for the future, and many of us include eating a healthy diet among our resolutions.
Good health is essential to a quality lifestyle, and yet finding easy, affordable and delicious recipes can often be a challenge. If a recipe isn't full of flavor, or tastes "too healthy," chances are we won't make it again.
Several years ago we were invited to an American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" event at the North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton. Tony would be demonstrating three different recipes, and the challenge was that each one had to be "heart-healthy."
Tony loves a good challenge and spent hours studying the dynamics of what makes a food heart-healthy, learning why some fats are better for us than others, and gaining a better understanding of what people want when it comes to healthy foods.
To his satisfaction, if not his surprise, Tony's research pointed him in the direction of the Mediterranean diet. With a breadth of knowledge in this field already, he went to work focusing on the healthiest aspects of Italian cuisine in order to better highlight specific regions and their food culture.
He'd learned that beans are one of the best heart-healthy foods because they are high in protein and fiber, but low in fat. With this knowledge, he knew his focus would be on the region of Tuscany, where the people are famously known as "bean eaters" or the "mangiafagioli," and his recipe for Tuscan Bean Salad was born.
The cannellini Bean is the most popular bean in Tuscany, and is very similar to the great northern bean and the navy bean, both of which are grown in parts of the Midwest, including North Dakota. Using the Cannellini bean as his main ingredient, Tony also wanted to showcase other foods that are available in the winter months and would provide enough flavor to make this salad sing.
With a focus on flavor and texture, he chose sun-dried tomatoes for their bright color and intense tomato flavor, adding a touch of summer to this bean salad. Next, he added sliced celery and diced red onion to add more color and some crunch to the mix. Extra virgin olive oil was a no-brainer: it is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, tastes great, and is also an unsaturated fat, otherwise known as a healthy fat.
But the key to this salad is the balsamic vinegar. Its rich, slightly sweet flavor lends itself perfectly to vinaigrettes, and it is the perfect complement to the vegetables featured in this salad.
This salad is full of flavor, easy to make, and satisfies the requirements of a healthy diet. But more than that, it has great versatility and people love it. At Sarello's, we've served it as an appetizer atop crostini or on Asian spoons, or as a complement to a fillet of poached salmon. In the summer we've added grilled corn to the mixture. We've even brought it to several potluck events, and we always leave with an empty dish and requests for the recipe.
Tuscan Bean Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (great northern beans or navy beans may also be used)
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut lengthwise into strips (use either oil-packed or good quality dried variety)
1 stalk of celery, sliced
¼ red onion, diced
1 ounce extra virgin olive oil
½ ounce balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ear of corn, grilled and cut from the cob (seasonal option)
Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and mix well, being careful not to break the beans. Refrigerate for at least one to two hours. For best results, allow the salad to come to room temperature before serving.
Cover leftovers with plastic or store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to two to three days.
This salad can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance, just wait to add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until about one to two hours before serving to preserve the crispness of the vegetables.
This column was written exclusively for The Forum.
"Home with the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.