Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli is essentially the Italian version of pork and beans. The dish has its roots in Tuscan peasant fare: it’s pure stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. Making it in the slow-cooker means that it’s an easy meal for busy weeknights.
When I think of pork and beans, a can usually comes to mind. Either the whole-shebang-in-a can (á la Van Camp’s), or canned beans with hotdog franks cut up inside. This latter was generally the option favored by my mom, who regularly served Beans and Wieners. You’ve probably also heard of Beans and Weenies. Or, as it was lovingly (NOT!) known to my sister and myself, Weans and Bieners. This meal fell firmly into the “Meh” category for both of us.
So when I saw Nick Stellino making Salsiccie e Fagioli on Wisconsin Public Television recently, I immediately snapped to attention. “It’s BEANS AND WIENERS!”, I exclaimed. Except that I just KNEW that Stellino’s version would be delicious.
I also knew that I could make the dish my own and adapt it to the slow-cooker. And thus, Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli was born.
First, a couple of caveats.
- The trade-off with Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli is that—since it IS a slow-cook—the sausages lose some of the snap they’d have if you made it on the stove-top and cooked for only 45 minutes. If this is a big deal, you can certainly add the sausages to the slow-cooker during the last hour of cooking time. I have to say, though, that something magical happens to the beans when they cook slowly in the juices from the sausages.
- There are a few steps to complete before you add everything to the slow-cooker: first, browning the sausages, and then building the base of your sauce. For this reason, I like to do these steps the night before, storing the sauce and sausages separately. Besides, letting the sauce hang out overnight allows the flavors to marry and deepen: win-win!
- You should rinse and pick through the beans to remove any stones: in all my years of making dishes with dried beans, I have never found a stone. But it could always happen, so I am warning you in order to avoid cracked teeth and other mishaps.
I like to use dried navy beans in Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli (I’ve found that Bob’s Red Mill puts out a good product [I’m not an affiliate, just a fan!]). The general rule is to add 4 cups of liquid to every 1 cup of beans. For this recipe, I used 1 1/2 cups of beans and added 3 cups of chicken broth, a 15-oz can of tomato sauce, and 3/4 cup of diced tomatoes. The result was a very saucy (almost stew-like) dish that practically demanded a crusty chunk of bread for dipping and mopping up every last bit of succulence.
Spicy Italian sausages are my favorite for Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli; if you’re heat-averse, you can use mild or even sweet. I used pork, but you could just as easily use turkey or chicken sausage to make the dish leaner.
Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli: flavor-building hacks
I speak elsewhere on the site about some great hacks that build a ton of flavor into sauces and soups in short order (for example, in my Slow-roasted Tomato Sauce recipe). They are absolutely not authentic, and you can take them or leave them. First hack: after the aromatics are sautéed and translucent, I like to add a tablespoon or so of tomato paste, mixing it in with the aromatics until its color deepens as it caramelizes slightly. My second hack—and this is really where I’m going to lose some of you (or get snobby comments from recipe purists)—is that I sprinkle the contents of my pot with a couple of tablespoons of Asian fish sauce. Yep, I said it. AND, I wish I could say that I was the first to think of this, but I’m definitely not.
You know how some sauces in Italian cuisine call for anchovy fillets, which you slowly, slowly melt down in some olive oil or butter until they’re no longer recognizable as anchovy fillets—but there’s an indescribable, luscious umami taste to the sauce? I’ll give you three seconds to guess what the main ingredient in Asian fish sauce is. [Checks watch] If you guessed anchovy extract, you’re right! All that painstaking work has been done for us, so it’s a simple matter of adding it to the pot. I reduce the fish sauce down to almost nothing and then add wine to deglaze the pan. Anchovy paste would be an acceptable substitution, although I’ve tried both and have to say: fish sauce wins in the flavor complexity department.
Work-ahead method for making Slow-Cooker Salsiccie e Fagioli
The night before I plan on putting the Salsiccie e Fagioli into the slow-cooker, I brown the sausages well on each side, then remove them to a plastic-wrap-covered plate for safekeeping in the fridge overnight. Then I add a pinch of pepper flakes and sauté the aromatics: coarsely chopped Vidalia onion, which adds a nice sweetness to the sauce, and coarsely chopped garlic. I add in some herbage: a sprig of rosemary, a few sage leaves, and a bay leaf. As the herbs begin to give off their wonderful aroma, I add and caramelize the tomato paste, followed by the fish sauce trick we discussed before, and a deglaze of the pan. After that, it’s a simple matter of stirring in the tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Then, I take the pot off the heat, lid it, and let it cool for a while before putting in the fridge overnight. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.
In the morning, all that’s left to do is to rinse and pick over the beans, add them to the pot, add in the chicken broth, stir in the sauce from last night, nestle the sausages on top, add several grinds of black pepper, and fire up the slow-cooker (low setting). Then walk away for 8 hours.
The great part about any slow-cooker dish with beans is that you can start with dry beans, so no pre-soak is involved. The beans will suck up most of the liquid in the slow-cooker, leaving you with a luscious, tomato-ey sauce. With that being said, check the liquid level whenever you return from doing what you do. If the beans look too dry (this will vary by slow-cooker), just add a bit of warm water. Also check the seasoning at this point: I usually end up adding about 1/2 tsp. of salt, but some sausages are quite salty to begin with—proceed with caution.
After that, it’s a simple matter of serving. We like to cut up the sausages and eat the dish like a stew with a sprinkling of parsley and a few shavings of Parmesan cheese for serving.
- 2 lbs. spicy or mild Italian sausage links (you can use pork, chicken, or turkey)
- 1 medium Vidalia onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
- ¾ cup diced tomatoes, drained (you can use canned or fresh)
- 2 tbsp. fish sauce (optional)
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 sprig sage (3 leaves)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1½ cups dry navy beans
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 cups chicken broth
- ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
- 2 tsp. Italian herb mix (optional)
- Chopped Italian parsley, for garnish (optional)
- Shaved Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)
- The night before:
- Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the sausages and brown well on all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove sausages to a plate, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the onion and garlic; sauté until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste; sauté—stirring slowly but steadily— until the paste darkens slightly in color, about 1 minute. Add the rosemary, sage, and bay leaf to the pot.
- Raise the heat to high. Add in the fish sauce; stir until the sauce is reduced until almost nothing. Add the wine and reduce by half, while scraping up any brown bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce; stir to combine and remove pot from heat. Allow pot to cool for 20 minutes, then lid and refrigerate overnight.
- On "game day":
- Rinse and pick through the beans, removing any stones. Add to the crock of a slow-cooker. Add the tomato mixture to the crock; stir to combine. Add the chicken broth, Italian herb mix (if using), and several grinds of black pepper; stir. Add the sausages and any accumulated juices (the sausages will be mostly—if not completely—submerged in the liquid). Set the slow-cooker on low for 8 hours.
- Check the liquid level of the beans at 7 hours: if more liquid is needed, stir in up to a cup of water. Check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed (I usually add ½ teaspoon of salt at this point).
- Serve with shavings of Parmesan cheese and a sprinkling of Italian parsley with crusty bread on the side.
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