Recipes are more than just directions on food preparation; at least that’s my take on the rich and beautiful history of global eating. Recipes can tell us a lot about community and ecosystem connections, politics and history, the struggles and successes of races and cultures, even the intersectionality of cultures, religions, racism and power. Take the conversation between my friend Jane and me early this year….
Jane texted that she was on to a new pie, which is not surprising since Jane is the proprietor of Pop’s Pies and has been featured numerous times on this blog for her amazing confections. But it’s pretty special to come up with a “new” pie. I mean, what hasn’t been done and redone (sometimes to death) in the world of good ol’ American pies?
And, in reality, Jane’s new pie wasn’t new; in fact, it got its start sometime in the late 1960s. According to Jane’s source, TASTE Cooking, this custard pie made with, of all things, white navy beans is “a culinary icon of the controversial Nation of Islam and of revolutionary black power.”
As Jane and I discovered, the story of “The Radical Pie that Fueled a Nation” is amazing and—not surprisingly—undertold in White history. The story of the Bean Pie is a wonderful exploration into how Black culture chose to separate itself from the predominantly White culture and why. Here is a snippet of the story in TASTE:
“The bean pie came to prominence through the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist and social reform movement founded in 1930. Based on beliefs that included black supremacy and self-reliance, the Nation represented a profound shift from the collaborative social-reform strategies of groups like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee…. [The Nation] advocated for a new black identity free from the legacies of enslavement… [and a] follower’s diet, methodical and inflexible, was one of the pillars that supported this new identity. The Nation’s leaders argued that many dishes and ingredients traditional to black foodways, particularly soul food, were relics of the ‘slave diet’ and had no part in the lives of contemporary African-Americans.”
In 1967, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad published How to Eat to Live, a cookbook emphasizing “vegetarianism, consuming whole grains and vegetables, and limiting sugar, processed grains, and traditional soul food ingredients, like sweet potatoes, corn, collard greens, and pork—the latter of which was vehemently forbidden to Nation members in accordance with Muslim law. Alcohol and tobacco were also prohibited. In their stead, black chefs cooked with ingredients like brown rice, smoked turkey, tahini, and tofu….”
Tofu! Who knew!!!!
The navy bean that is featured in this custard pie was one of the stars of the Nation’s diet. TASTE reports that according to Elijah Muhammad, “Allah (God) says that the little navy bean will make you live, just eat them…. He said that a diet of navy beans would give us a life span of one hundred and forty years. Yet we cannot live [half] that length of time eating everything that the Christian table has set for us.” Quite the endorsement for such a humble little bean, Jane and I thought.
I think vegetarians today would recognize the wise thinking behind the Nation of Islam diet, and, with some lifestyle exceptions, be right on board. So Jane was all up for trying out this pie—perhaps putting it on her order menu for Black History Month. And I was all in for being a taste tester—I even volunteered Don and decided I’d keep the ingredients to myself just until he tasted it.
Once that pie was out of the oven and I’d picked up our slices, it was ready, set, go! Then we were back in conversation with the verdict. And the verdict was…well…let’s be honest…not great. Jane thought with some tweaking, she might elevate it for her customers, but, really, there was no getting past the texture of those beans and the bland taste left in the mouth. As for Don, he came back into the kitchen and looked at me in disbelief: “Jane made this pie?” So, while the story is incredible, the history totally relevant to present day conversations, the honoring of Black History Month through the learning of the whole story important, and the pie really pretty easy to make, the result… needs more work. Perhaps just the victim of a modern—maybe White—pallet.
But wait! Let’s not throw those humble, protein-packed, yummy beans out with the pie crust. Let’s pause a minute and rethink…a pizza is a pie, right? Sauce with cheese is sorta like custard, right? OK, I’m reaching a bit here. But I bet you will be reaching for my White Bean, Spinach and Tomato Deep Dish Pizza with Whole Wheat Crust the next time you are feeling the need for vegetarian power in your life! Take a look…
- One and one-half cups warm water (about 110 degrees)
- One package dry yeast
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One teaspoon salt
- One teaspoon sugar
- One and one-half cups bread flour
- Two cups whole wheat flour
- One-half cup all-purpose flour
- One-quarter cup or a little more olive oil
- One and one-half cups onion, sliced in half vertically, then sliced on the side at an angle for thin crescent slivers
- Three to four large cloves garlic, chopped
- Four cups tomatoes with juice, either whole canned tomatoes or tomatoes canned or frozen from your fall harvest (If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator before starting the recipe.)
- One jar tomato paste
- A two to three-inch piece of Parmigiana Reggiano rind, if you have one on hand in your freezer, which, of course, you should! Never throw real Parmigiana Reggiano rinds away; they are a great seasoning ingredient.
- One-quarter cup pesto (I freeze homemade pesto without cheese in the fall when my basil is nearly two-foot tall. I fill ice cube trays and pop the pesto cubes out as needed. Again, something you should be doing, maybe.)
- One-half teaspoon sugar
- One-quarter cup dry red wine or dry sherry (Optional, and certainly not in keeping with the Nation of Islam diet. When you deglaze the sauce skillet, you can always use vegetable stock or plain water in place of the wine.)
- Juice of one small lemon
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- One and one-half cups cooked white navy beans, from scratch or canned (If you use canned, buy organic in a non-BPA lined can, drain, rinse and let air dry. See notes after the recipe for cooking the beans from scratch.)
- Two cups fresh spinach leaves, roughly chopped
- One cup real Parmigiana Reggiano, shredded (Do the shredding yourself—nothing from a bag!)
- Pour the warm water into a large glass mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast across the top of the water. Stir with a wooden spoon until dissolved. Give the yeast a minute or two to bubble up; then, add the olive oil, sugar and salt. Stir to combine.
- To the yeast mixture, add the bread flour and the whole wheat flour, stirring to combine. Gradually add the remaining half-cup all-purpose flour with your hands, as you begin to work the dough into a ragged ball, until it holds together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured surface—a board or your counter. Knead the dough until smooth, which can be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Use your bench scraper to lift the dough if it is overly sticky; avoid adding lots of additional flour, which will only make your crust tough. Gently push the dough forward and pull back, turn and repeat until the dough is smooth, springy and comes away from your surface without a lot of effort.
- Place the dough in a large clean bowl, coated generously with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free space for an hour to an hour and a half.
- This timing depends a lot on the temperature in your kitchen. When my kitchen is cold, I sometimes turn on my oven to about 190 degrees and then shut it off when it comes to temperature. I make the dough then, so that I’m sure the oven won’t be too hot when I stick the dough in for the first rising. I also keep the bottom of my broiler pan on the lowest rack of the oven and add boiling water to it so that the bread rises in a steamy environment. If the weather and your kitchen are warm, these steps shouldn’t be necessary.
- Once the dough has risen and doubled in size, punch it down with care, knead for a few minutes and roll it out to a 15 x 10 rectangle. Place the dough rectangle in a parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet and press it as necessary to make it fit to the edges of the pan. Keep in mind, though, that this is a springy, soft dough, much like a brioche. It will not totally behave and will try to inch back away from the sides—ignore it, you’ll be able to adjust later. Brush the dough with olive oil and cover with a clean towel. Let this rise a second time for about another hour. The dough should be puffy when ready.
- I actually like to start with the sauce because it can be made several days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. This is up to you, of course. You can begin with the crust and make the sauce while the crust rises. The nice part about all this is that you have some flexibility. Whichever way works for your menu schedule is the way to go.
- So to begin the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large chef's skillet with deep sides. When the oil shimmers add your onion slices and a good pinch of salt. Stir the onions, cooking on medium heat for about two to three minutes; then, reduce the heat a bit to medium-low and allow the onions to cook down, 45 minutes to one hour. During the last 15 minutes or so of cooking, add the garlic, stir and continue cooking until the garlic is soft and the onions are browning and caramelizing.
- Next, stir in the tomato paste so that it will toast a bit with the oil and onions and develop flavor, somewhere between two and four minutes.
- At this point, I like to turn up the heat and add some dry red wine or dry sherry to deglaze the pan. But stock or water work just fine.
- Once the fond is scraped from the bottom and everything is sizzling, I add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a sturdy spoon. This is meant to be a chunky sauce, not a smooth one. The tomatoes will break down on their own as they cook, so no need to mash them into submission. I also add the sugar and a bit more salt.
- Once the sauce is at a boil, reduce the heat, add the pesto and the parmesan rind and simmer low for about an hour. The sauce should thicken up and reduce at least a quarter. Stir occasionally and taste test for salt and pepper—adding as you need for balance.
- When finished, turn off the heat, remove any shreds of the Parmigianna rind and stir in the lemon juice. You can cool the sauce to room temperature and top the pizza crust or you can store it in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and place the bottom of your broiler pan on the lowest rack of the oven, if it's not there already. Start your tea kettle and get it to a rolling boil.
- Now move to the pizza. At the end of its second rise, your dough is much more agreeable, so take a moment to stretch it back out a bit to cover the pan. If it isn’t perfect, it’s no big deal; you’re making pizza, not laying the foundation for a high-rise building.
- Once the dough is where you want it, ladle on the sauce—be generous, but leave about an inch from the sides, if you can. If the sauce creeps a bit to the edge, who cares.
- Sprinkle the spinach leaves evenly across the sauce. Top with the navy beans and sprinkle everything with the Parmigiana. Turn off the tea kettle if you haven’t already.
- Place the pizza in the oven and carefully pour boiling water into the broiler pan, then quickly shut the oven door. That burst of steam will create a lovely crust; just be mindful of the steam and your hands—I've burned mine more than once.
- Bake the pizza for 30-40 minutes or until the edge crust is golden. Allow the pizza to cool on baking racks for five minutes before cutting into generous squares.
Note that I have calculated the prep and cook times assuming you are making the crust and sauce on the same day. Prep time includes preparing the dough and rising time, as well as preparing ingredients for the sauce and toppings. Cook time includes cooking of the sauce and baking the pizza. So pretty much an estimate.
Notes on Perfect Pizza
About the Crust: this crust is not your typical chewy, crunchy crust. It is soft and bready, with a fairly light, crispy bottom. This makes any leftovers work really well when reheating. The crust will get slightly crunchier but never hard. I recommend reheating at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Leftovers for this pizza are good for at least five days—good luck making them last that long.
About the Sauce: while this sauce is just incredible on pizza, it is equally at home over pasta, in a casserole, and as an Italian dipping sauce for homemade focaccia. There will be more than enough sauce for this pizza and then some, and it stores for about a week in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. You’ll think of a million ways to use it—very nice to have on hand.
Cooking Navy Beans from Scratch: while it is easier and quicker to open a can, I usually go for from-scratch beans. If this is your choice too, you will want to soak about one cup of dry beans overnight. Drain them in the morning, rinse well and cover them with fresh cold water to cook. I like to add a couple bay leaves and two cloves of raw garlic to the water, as well. This delicately flavors the beans. Do not salt them, which will make them tough. Once the beans are tender–maybe an hour and a half to two hours at a low simmer, you can drain them and use them the same day or you can store them in their liquid for about four days, using as you need. Be sure to let them dry out before using on this pizza.
So we have barely touched on the connection between food and history, history and truth-telling, Black struggles within White supremacy. So we must keep cooking, and learning, and reading, and having those hard conversations, which are slightly easier to have over a nice piece of pizza or slice of pie. The more seats we pull up to the table, the more diverse our menu becomes and the healthier our communities will grow.