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The love language of butter

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By Yotam Ottolenghi, The New York Times

LONDON — Around Valentine’s Day, I raise my glass particularly high to any couple who managed to save up any top chat for a romantic dinner for two. What on earth is there to talk about when you haven’t been anywhere or done anything for a very long time? In the absence of such discussion, may I present three ways to remind someone why they love you: the general concept of cupboard love; the very specific qualities of butter; and the particularly special advantages of brown butter?

Cupboard love is not always held up as a very pure form of love. At its heart is the relationship between the feeder and the fed. It is, in short, why your dog appears to love you and only you. It’s not, sadly, that your pet is the only one who truly understands your soul, but simply the fact that you fill its bowl with food once a day.

I’m someone whose “love language” is often wrapped up with food, so cupboard love does not strike a particularly false note with me. If I want to show someone love, a meal is generally made. I, in turn, love my cupboard when I open it and see my staples at the ready: my jars of butter beans, my anchovies, my silky olive oil, my chile flakes. If really big hugs and comfort are needed, though, I often reach for butter.

The link between butter and love was recently crystallized for me when I was reading a recipe for Sho Spaeth’s butter chicken. His description was for a “mother’s love’s worth of butter and cream” to be added at the end. This matched perfectly with dishes I cook for my kids, so many of which have butter at their heart: grilled cobs of corn, buttery mashed potatoes, my very wet scrambled eggs, baked aromatic rice and a whole range of spongecakes.

It’s not just a language between parents and their children, though. Watch grown adults take their first bite of sole meunière, and the pure joy of this French classic will become immediately evident on their faces. The magic of the dish does not derive just from the presence of butter, balanced perfectly by tangy lemon, but from heating the butter to the point of becoming beurre noisette — a nutty, frothy, caramelized brown butter.

Making brown butter is easy. It’s butter, plus heat, plus time: The butter is heated in the pan, then the water evaporates and the solids left behind start to caramelize and smell nutty. If butter is an everyday love, then brown butter is the candlelit moment: simple to achieve (so long as you keep a close eye on the pan) and makes everything feel sort of wondrous. Decadent as well, as drizzling frothy, nutty, browned butter over everything would not, literally, be a great idea for the heart.

Brown butter can be paired with — so as to elevate — the most basic of ingredients. Here, it’s a jar of butter beans that have been roasted in the oven, but it also works well drizzled over wilted greens, baked eggs, mashed carrots, rice pudding or plain tagliatelle. Everyday dishes, each and every one, made utterly lovable by the simple addition of butter.

Recipe: Brown-Butter Butter Beans With Lemon and Pesto

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 6 cups (drained) home-cooked, canned or jarred butter beans (about 2 1/4 pounds/1 kilogram)
  • 7 tablespoons/105 milliliters olive oil
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1/3 cup/30 grams roughly grated Parmesan
  • 1/3 cup/15 grams packed roughly chopped parsley
  • 3 scallions, trimmed and sliced
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest plus 1/3 cup/80 milliliters juice (from 3 lemons)
  • 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks)
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 8 oil-packed anchovies, drained and roughly chopped (about 2 packed tablespoons/30 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

Preparation

1. Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit/230 degrees Celsius. Dry the butter beans very well, then spread them out onto 2 large parchment-lined baking sheets (trays). Add 2 tablespoons oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper to each baking sheet, toss gently to combine, then spread the beans in an even layer. Roast for 15 minutes, then carefully turn over the butter beans and return to the oven, swapping the positions of both baking sheets. Roast until nicely browned and crispy, another 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t worry if some of the butter beans are broken or split; this lends plenty of crisp texture.

2. While the beans roast, make the pesto: Add the Parmesan, parsley, scallions, lemon zest, a good pinch of salt and a generous amount of pepper to a food processor, and pulse a few times to finely chop. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and blitz until combined. Transfer to a bowl, stir in 4 teaspoons lemon juice, and set aside.

3. Add the butter to a large skillet and melt over medium-high heat. Once melted, cook for 4 to 5 minutes, swirling the pan occasionally, until beginning to brown and smell nutty. Add the garlic (it will bubble vigorously) and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the anchovies and cook for 30 to 60 seconds more, or until the garlic is very lightly golden. Stir in the red-pepper flakes, then remove from the heat. Stir in the remaining lemon juice.

4. Using the parchment paper as a sling, transfer the roasted butter beans to a large platter or divide among plates. Pour the brown butter mixture on top. Dot with some of the pesto, and serve right away, passing the remaining pesto in a bowl alongside.

And to Drink …

Beans in general go with many different wines, so in choosing a bottle look at the flavorings. For this recipe, the primary flavorings, lemon, parsley pesto, anchovies, garlic, butter and Parmesan, scream out for a dry white wine. Italian whites are the top choice, and the options are numerous: Verdicchio, Etna Bianco, fianos from Campania, Gavi, pecorino, grillo, trebbiano d’Abruzzo, I could go on and on. These wines were created for dishes like this. But many other choices beckon as well. Bourgogne Aligoté can often be swapped out for an Italian white. Chablis or Sancerre would fit right in, too, as would quite a few Mâconnais wines. You could drink an albariño from Galicia in Spain or an assyrtiko from Santorini. You could even open a fino or manzanilla sherry.

— Eric Asimov

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