Italian White Bean Salad

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You'll find this recipe in:
The White House Chef Cookbook
By: René Verdon
New York, 1967

The Original Recipe:

2 cans cannellini (white beans)
2⁄3 cup chopped red onion
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon basil
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients and toss well. Refrigerate for several hours before serving.

My Experience:

If you're paying attention to the ingredients listed in this recipe and what my Italian White Bean Salad looks like, you're probably wondering: What is all the green stuff? Where is the red onion? I had every intention of making this salad by the book, but I didn't read the ingredients close enough, so I didn't notice the "red" in front of the "onion" in the ingredient list until I was about it make it. I had an occasion to get to, so I just had a look at what I already had in the house. I had regular old white onions, and some green garlic from my farmshare that I didn't have plans for. I opted for the green garlic, and I really like its blend of onion and garlic flavours in this salad.

In keeping with the white theme for this salad, I used white wine vinegar. Since Chef Verdon lists only 1 tsp of basil, I guessed that he was referring to dried basil, but this recipe would be even tastier if you've got fresh basil on hand. Cannellini beans are also known as white kidney beans, and the cans I bought were 540 mL/19 fl oz. Although very delicious, this salad recipe is doused in vinaigrette! It's too oily for my taste. It's very likely that can sizes were different than today in 1967, so if the cans of cannellini beans in your local grocery store are the same size as the ones I used, I'd scale down the vinaigrette.

I made Italian White Bean Salad along with Mushroom Rolls to take along to a potluck picnic. Both of these recipes are found in The White House Chef Cookbook by René Verdon, written in 1967 after his four-year stint as White House Executive Chef. Verdon was the first Executive Chef of the White House, a position created by the Kennedys in 1961.

This cookbook is filled with scrumptious recipes and a biographical Introduction outlining his early life and how his career at the White House unfolded. The introduction to each section features anecdotes about the Kennedys and life at the White House, and also helpful tips like the proper order in which to dress a salad, or how to keep the colour vibrant in various cooked vegetables.

Verdon stayed on as Executive Chef with the Johnsons, but he found that the tides had turned. A Food Administrator was hired to cut costs and the culinary tastes of the new First Family were not harmonious with what Verdon wanted to put on the menus. He resigned in 1965, and went on to author three cookbooks & open Le Trianon, a French restaurant in San Francisco.

It was, I believe, the superb aroma of freshly baked bread from the ovens of my father's bakery that first gave me the idea that preparing food might also be for me a life's work...There was no opposition at home. Indeed, my parents were very pleased, and encouraged me in every way. Father only had one word of advice to me about jobs: "If you don't like it, quit." He had the conviction that a man must like his work in order to be productive and creative. I remember his words years later when I came time for me to think about leaving the White House.

Particularly, I recall the heartwarming personal notes, in French, handwritten by Mrs. Kennedy to express her appreciation for some dish I had prepared. President Kennedy was also extremely generous with his appreciative comments. I shared the grief of America when he was so suddenly taken away from us. I had known him as a man full of life and laughter, of wisdom and charm. I had seen him as a kind and loving husband and father. His death struck all of us on the staff as a deep and personal loss.

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If you'd like to learn some more about René Verdon and his life, The New York Times featured him following his death in 2011 at the age of 86

Mental Floss outlines the history of White House Executive Chefs and the Cooks who prepared food for American Presidents beginning with the Washingtons

Read the Cookbook: