I like hummus, but I think I like cannellini bean dip just a little bit more. Perhaps this is because in the past 15 years or so, hummus has become so popular in the United States that it's grown from a $5 million dollar industry to a $143 million dollar one. People enjoy hummus so much that there is apparently a popular iPhone app called iHummus, which allows one to virtually push hummus around a plate with a slice of pita bread. At the supermarket, hummus flavors range from spinach and artichoke to red pepper to lemon, not to mention the garlic varieties, the spicy jalapeno kinds, or the ones dressed up with sun dried tomatoes. All in all, maybe I'm just sick of hummus.
In Arabic, hummus means chickpea (also known in Spanish as "garbanzo," and in Italian as "ceci"), and traditionally it's a blend of chickpeas and sesame paste (tahini) with varying amounts of lemon, garlic and oil. As far as its history goes, it's sort of pre-history. Chickpeas almost certainly originated in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia), which is where they were first cultivated. While no one knows exactly when or where hummus was first invented, there are certainly records of it dating back as far as Ancient Egypt, so it's been around for a while.
Cannellini beans, which I used in my dip, have a much more modest history. Also known as white beans, they're related to kidneys, pintos, and navys, all of which are known as "common beans" because they all share a "common" ancestor bean which originated in Peru. This bean was eventually introduced to Europe in the 15th century by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, at which point it spread throughout the Mediterranean.
Like chickpeas, white beans are high in fiber, protien and iron and low in fat, and I find that blending them up with roasted garlic, herbs, and lemon juice yields a slightly lighter and more delicate tasting spread than hummus, but that's just my opinion. The fun thing about a recipe like this is that you can play around with it a little bit. Throw in a few roasted red peppers, if you have them on hand, or use a different combination of herbs. Some artichoke hearts could be nice, and if you're not a garlic lover like I am, just leave it out.
Spread the dip on crostini (maybe topped with julienned sweet peppers or slices of spicy sopressata), use it in sandwiches, serve it with pita chips, or dollop it on a plate by itself beneath braised lamb shanks. Very tasty stuff.
Cannellini bean dip with roasted garlic and herbs
1 head of garlic
one large can of cannelini (white) beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons fresh chopped mint
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
zest of one small lemon
juice from two small lemons
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the top third off of the head of garlic and wrap it in an aluminum foil "package." Drizzle more olive oil over top, season with salt and pepper, seal the package and roast for 45 minutes, or until the garlic is very tender. Allow the garlic head to cool. (For a more detailed description of the garlic roasting process, see my entry on roasted tomato and garlic soup.)
Squeeze the garlic cloves out of their paper into a food processor. Add the other ingredients and a few glugs of olive oil (say a quarter cup to start) and pulse until the ingredients are chopped and blended. Add more olive oil (or a little water, or even white wine) and blend until the mixture is smooth. Season with salt and pepper, and some additional lemon juice/herbs as needed. Serve with cracked black pepper, herbs and olive oil drizzled over top.