A recipe for red chard, white beans, pancetta and mindful cooking

Several months ago, I wrote this prayer for a group to which I belong that offers peer support for people in the restaurant, hospitality and food service trades. It isn’t a prayer directed in supplication for aid or succor to any celestial being or deity.

It prays in the original meaning of the word, from the Latin “precari,” in the wide and general sense simply “to beseech or entreat.” In this prayer, you pray to and for yourself.

A Cook’s Prayer

Help me craft contented tables. Guide my hands to make good food, wholesome food, food that tastes great. Teach me that cooking isn’t merely something that I do to care for other people. I also cook to care about the food itself. And perhaps most important, to care for myself.

Let me choose the best ingredients and be meticulous in preparing them. Help me to see that cooking can focus the mind, it can slow the pace of the day, it can allow me to see the beauty of the material world.

Let my food and cooking bring family and friends closer together. Bless my food, the people who serve it, those who eat it and those who clean the dishes.

What is important to me, in this prayer and at this time both in any year (when the headlong passage of time is so patent, particularly in plants) and in my own life that so far this year has been turbulent, is what we nowadays call “mindfulness.”

It is, in short, to pause to see (or, indeed, especially with food, to taste, to feel, to smell) that to which I am present in a given moment. The pause is important, for it freezes the change (or calms the turbulence), allowing me to accept, perchance in gratitude, that which life gives me, what is truly there. So, mindfulness in cooking is splendid practice for much else in living.

I devised the recipe here (with help from some of my several cookbooks and recollections of meals in Italy) after I had cleaned up a large bunch of red chard.

Such intricacy in any leaf of red chard! Like a “Gray’s Anatomy” illustration of the flow of our blood or a drone shot of The Nile after Passover’s original night. Like fingerprints or snowflakes, each red chard leaf is distinct. You may see that for yourself.

And if and when you prepare this recipe, seeing so will, as The Cook’s Prayer suggests, “help me to see that cooking can focus the mind, it can slow the pace of the day, it can allow me to see the beauty of the material world.”

All this, merely at the kitchen counter. A great blessing.

Like fingerprints or snowflakes, each red chard leaf is distinct. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)
Like fingerprints or snowflakes, each red chard leaf is distinct.(Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

Red Chard, White Beans and Pancetta

Makes 6 large or 8-10 first-course servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 pound piece pancetta or guanciale, small diced (see note)
  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 bunches red chard, washed and spun or shaken dry, destemmed or stripped of red stems, leaves torn roughly and stems chopped into 1-inch pieces, leaf and stem pieces separated
  • 2 ribs celery, small diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and small diced (optional)
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced or slivered
  • 1 pound (2 cups) dried white beans such as cannellini, great northern, tarbais or borlotti, rinsed and soaked in cool water for 4-6 hours, drained
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 large or 2 medium-sized rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (see note)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 bouquet garni (optional)
  • 4 cups water, or less
  • 1 large or 2 medium very ripe red tomatoes, peeled and rough chopped
  • Garnishes (optional): extra virgin olive oil; finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

Directions

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat and, in it, cook the pancetta for 15 minutes until it is browned and beginning to crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon or “spider” and reserve.

In the accumulated fat, cook onion for 10 minutes until translucent and beginning to brown. Add the celery, the chard stems (not yet the leaves) and the carrot, if using, and cook for 10 more minutes, stirring. Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until it is noticeably aromatic.

Add the beans, chicken broth, cheese rinds, black pepper, bay leaves and bouquet garni, if using. Turn up the heat and bring to a slow boil, then lower to a simmer and cook, uncovered or with the cover ajar (either way is fine) until the beans are just cooked through, anywhere from 45-90 minutes, depending on the beans. Add water to the mix if the beans take in more water than that of the final consistency you desire.

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