Hillary Sterling is home for dinner just three nights a week. The other nights, she works as the executive chef of Ci Siamo, a bustling restaurant in Manhattan, where her team serves the best bowl of braised beans I’ve ever had.
Every day before the beans are served, Sterling, 45, tastes them, topped with a tinsel of fried rosemary and sage; a shower of Piave, a salty cheese not unlike a young Parmigiano-Reggiano; and a flourish of peppery olive oil and peppy black pepper. But she still cooks a pot of beans for dinner at least one of those few nights at home, usually on a Saturday or Sunday when she has the time to let them go on the stove. (Fridays are dedicated to late-night sushi with her wife, Tess.)
There are dishes you can’t really order at a restaurant (a proper Sunday roast), and those you don’t tend to make at home (sushi). But the beans at Ci Siamo, at once quotidian in ingredients and deluxe in flavor, helped cement for me that my favorite restaurant food is often the kind you can make at home, so long as you have the knowledge. A smaller kitchen with fewer hands and less equipment can still turn out a dish full of unexpected delights, the kind of food that makes you go, “Whoa, what’s in here?”
As with the best recipes, the devil is in the details — and the cook’s nature. How you make a pot of beans says a lot about you. Do you soak them in water overnight like a responsible adult, or go hot and fast until al dente? Are your aromatics deliberate or a fridge-cleanout hodgepodge? “Rule of thumb when cooking beans is to soak in plenty of water so they have room to expand,” Sterling wrote to me. Whether you soak your legumes is up to you, but I do think, as with rice, minimal soaking — an hour or two — results in more evenly cooked beans. The food writer Samin Nosrat once wrote in the pages of this magazine that the only surefire way to know if your beans are done is to taste five creamy ones in a row. “If my third or fourth bean is not quite done,” Nosrat said, “I just keep simmering.”