On a bright autumn day, it is easy to see why John Muir called the Sierra “The Range of Light.” The aspen trees shimmer in hews of yellow, gold and flame orange, their falling leaves settle on nearby pines and glimmer like Christmas ornaments, the mountain peaks glisten as the afternoon sunlight strikes shards of granite and crystal, the steely water in the lakes reflect the surrounding trees and towering cliffs, even the sky seems to glow.
The lower angle of the sun yields cooler temperatures that are perfect for hiking. This is my favorite season in the Sierra, and we celebrate with all day treks to a few of our favorite high mountain spots—Long Lake, Lamarck Lake, upper Tyee lakes. We are so energized by the beauty and ideal conditions, it’s impossible to stay inside so we’ve made plans for outings to a few places our friends have been gushing about but we’ve never seen, like Green Lake and Blue Lake. The lakes are alluring destinations that keep us moving up the mountain trails, with the knowledge we’ll be eating lunch with an awesome vista.
We return to the cabin from these adventures tired, a little cold, but satisfied and hungry. While Steve gets the wood stove fired up, I busy myself in the kitchen. Bean stews are easy, warming and hearty fare for after a day exerting ourselves on the trail. I keep canned beans in the pantry for these occasions. There are always a few sausages in the freezer to add a blast of flavor to soups, stews and pizzas. I stock the fridge with a variety of veggies, not always planning for specific dishes. I love to be inspired by what I find in the kitchen. Today’s offerings led to this nourishing white bean, mushroom and spinach stew, garnished with Italian chicken sausages, cubed and sautéed until browned and crisped.
White Bean and Mushroom Stew
- 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (optional)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 large red bell pepper, seeded, but into ½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
- ½ teaspoons dried red pepper flakes
- Coarse kosher salt or freshly ground black pepper
- 12 ounces mushrooms (baby bella, cremini or button), sliced
- 2 15-ounce cans cannellini or great northern beans (preferably reduced salt), with liquid
- 1 cup or more chicken or vegetable broth (preferably low salt), or water
- 3 cups (about 3 ounces) baby spinach or baby kale
- 2 smoked sausages (about 6 ounces total) such as Aidells Italian Style Smoked Chicken, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
- Place porcini in a small bowl. Add 1 cup boiling water and let soak at least 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil in a heavy Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, rosemary and red pepper flakes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until beginning to brown, stirring frequently, about 8 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.
- Add the beans with their liquid and 1 cup broth or water to the pot. Drain the porcini, reserving the soaking liquid. Chop the porcini and add to the pot. Add the soaking liquid. Bring the stew to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes to blend flavors.
- Add the spinach to the stew and simmer just until wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Thin to desired consistency with more broth or water. (Can be refrigerated for 3 days. Rewarm before serving, thinning with more broth or water if desired.)
- Heat a thin film of oil in a heavy medium skillet. Add the sausage and sauté until nicely browned, about 5 minutes.
- Spoon the stew into bowls. Sprinkle the sausage over and serve.