In Season: Beans!
By Linda Brandt Tanner
The pioneers knew their value. Frugal cooks depend on
their versatility and nourishment. They happen to be one of the easiest things in the
world to cook, and now they are considered chic and even come in designer colors. Beans
are a favorite of mine and have been a mainstay in my home for as long as I can remember.
The lima beans my father made were soupy, full of smoky
bacon, garlic, and black pepper and were typical Saturday night fare, christened with a
dollop of ketchup and served with a green salad fairly drenched in Mamas garlicky
vinaigrette. One of the first dishes I made on my own as a nine-year-old was what we
called fryin pan chili. It was easy enough to fry ground beef, chop an onion, smash
a clove of garlic, and open two cans each of red kidney beans and tomato sauce. All this
went into the big black cast iron skillet and simmered for fifteen minutes. Thus the name
fryin pan chili. Notice the total absence of chili powder or any other spices! We
ate it served over buttered slices of white sandwich bread, and I thought it was delish!
Another favorite of mine was a soft slice of Kilpatricks white bread spread with
mayonnaise and cold Van de Kamps canned pork and beans. Years later, as a young
wife, I stained the bean section of the Womans Day Encyclopedia of Cookery,
preparing its version of Senate Bean Soup. This was a creamy mélange of white navy beans,
diced carrots, and ham hocks. It was scrumptious with cornbread, filled my familys
tummies, and saved our pocketbook as well.
Bean, Beans, Marvelous Beans
Now that winter has
arrived, I often have a nourishing pot of beans on the stove, and its fragrant warmth
fills the chilly places in the house. Gone are the days when we had only kidney, pinto,
and navy beans at our disposal. Now, in addition to those standbys, we have what I call
beautiful beans. These are heritage beans: the beans with a past. My market displays eight
or ten varieties of them. Just yesterday, I paused in front of this display. Aimlessly
running my hands through these unusual beans, I let them rain from my palms and enjoyed
their unique shapes, patterns, and colors. There was the black-and-white, yin-yang-marked
bean called calypso, the brown-and-white-spotted appaloosa bean, the
beige-and-maroon-stippled borlotti bean (a favorite of Tuscan cooks), the large scarlet
runner bean with its dramatic magenta and black marbling, the tiny oval French flagolette
bean the color of pale jade, and the brown-and-sienna-colored bean called tongues of fire.
Beans ask for so little and reward us with such fine flavor and rib-sticking pleasure,
its a joy to cook with them.
A properly cooked bean is softly plump and intact. The
best beans are the freshest beans, and the only down side to dried beans (aside from their
airy reputation) is that an old bean can take forever to soften and may never reach that
soft, buttery texture we seek. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to tell a new crop
of dried beans from old dried-out beans. My solution for successful cooking is to buy my
beans at a market with a good turnover. And I void those sweet little boutique bags of
beans: besides being overpriced, many have several kinds of beans as well as lentils and
peas included. Although all are delicious, each bean will take a different time to reach
its softness, and before the beans have softened, the peas and lentils will have cooked
Simple Beans: Two Methods
Method One: Wash the beans and pick through
them to remove any pebbles or bits of dirt. Soak the beans in a cool place overnight in a
generous amount of cold water. In the morning, the beans will have swollen and absorbed
quite a bit of the water. Discard the remaining soaking water, place the beans in a pot
with a heavy bottom, and cover them with cold water or chicken or vegetable stock. I like
the liquid to be about four or five inches over the top of the beans. Remember, one cup of
dried beans will swell to three cups cooked, as it absorbs much of the liquid.
Chop one large onion and two cloves of garlic and add
that to the pot, along with a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary and maybe a bay leaf.
Refrain from adding salt or any tomato product at this point, as they will slow the
beans softening process. Bring this to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a gentle
simmer and cook, adding liquid as needed, so the beans dont dry out. Simmer until
the beans are plump and soft: approximately two hours. Remember to stir them now and then.
A handy gadget to have is called a flame tamer. Its a metal device, usually
star-shaped or of circular mesh, that sits on top of an electric or gas burner to suffuse
the heat so you can keep items such as stews, soups, and beans cooking at a very gentle
simmer for a long time. By eliminating "hot spots," flame tamers discourage
beans from sticking and burning. Still, you will need to stir your beans from time to
time. Stir from the bottom of the pan upward, using a wooden spoon. Alas, the only thing
you can do with scorched or burned beans is to throw them out.
Method Two: If
you need to hurry along the cooking process and havent soaked the beans overnight,
use this method. Wash and pick over the beans as described in method one, and place in a
heavy pot with cold liquid to cover them by four inches. Dont add salt at this time.
Bring the beans to a rolling boil, boil for two minutes, and turn off the heat. Cover the
pot and leave the beans undisturbed on the stove for one hour. At the end of the hour,
remove the cover and observe that much of the liquid has been absorbed and the beans have
gotten a head start hydrating. Proceed to cook as described in method one, adding more
liquid if needed. When the beans are tender, cool them quickly, cover, and refrigerate.
Embellishing Your Basic Bean
particularly adaptable to savory flavors such as onion, garlic, and chilies, and herbs and
spices such as basil, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, sage, and cumin. Beans also have an
affinity for smoky meats, and their long, slow cooking time coaxes the best flavor from
meat bones. That is why smoked ham hocks, shank bones, or prosciuitto (spiced Italian ham)
bones are a prized addition to a bean pot. If you like the taste and texture of meat in
your beans, salt pork (known as streak o lean in some locales) sautéed bacon,
pancetta, or sausage are all flavorful choices as well. Most ham hocks purchased in the
supermarket are about the size of a large fist. The best are full of deep, authentic smoky
flavor. Stay away from any product with chemicals added to enhance the smoke flavor. My
butcher smokes his own ham hocks, and they are quite large and oblong shaped, probably the
whole hock. When I purchase a couple, I ask him to saw each one in thirds. At home, I
freeze them in a freezer bag, and when I want a little smoky flavor, one chubby chunk
added to the pot will suffice. If you are using hocks or meat for additional flavor, add
them to the pot as you begin the cooking stage, along with any spices and herbs, so that
the flavors will permeate the beans as they simmer and soften. Once the beans begin to
softenafter the first hour or so of cookingits time to add salt and any
Now that youve mastered the method, there is so
much you can create. An herbed bean spread is the perfect topping for a winter bruschetta
(that is, toast made of peasant bread, drizzled with olive oil, and rubbed with garlic).
You can make a spread easily with a fork or your food processor. Take some of the beans
youve cookedabout a cup should do itand mash them to a paste with a
fork. Finely chop a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, mince a small clove of garlic, and
add these to the dish. Moisten this with about two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
to loosen it to spreading consistency, and then give it a splash of red wine vinegar or
lemon juice for bite. Add salt and pepper and, if you crave more pizzazz, a pinch of red
pepper flakes. Cover and refrigerate and allow the flavors to come together. Spread at
room temperature on toasted slices of peasant bread. This is great with a steaming bowl of
chicken soup, when passed with drinks as an appetizer, or as a suppertime accompaniment to
For a savory bean dish, sauté a bit of chopped onion
and garlic with some olive oil in a skillet. Add some of the cooked beans with about one
half cup of their liquid and several healthy handfuls of greens. Use turnip greens,
spinach, kale, or Swiss chard, washed and cut into ribbons. Simmer this with the lid on
for a few minutes, until the greens wilt and become tender. Season with salt, ground
pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of lemon juice. These beans are tasty
with roast meats or poultry, and can easily become a meatless main dish with the addition
of a couple of diced, cooked potatoes. For this variation, warm the potatoes along with
the beans and greens in the skillet, moistening with a little stock if needed. Top each
serving with grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese and black pepper.
Not officially a bean, but at the top of my list for
winter comfort in one pot is my son-in-laws recipe for black-eyed peas and ham
hocks. Lonnie cooked up a mess of these for my daughter to celebrate the birth of their
second daughter in the fall of 1996. That happened to be my late introduction to
black-eyed peas, but what a superb introduction! They were rich and deeply flavored with
smoky meat juices. Certainly, this is what the term "stick to your ribs" was
invented for. Lonnie serves them with hot skillet corn bread and coleslawand plenty
of Tabasco sauce!
To make your own, wash and pick over two cups of
black-eyed peas. Put them into a heavy pot with at least a six-quart capacity. Add two or
three ham hocks and several slices of fried and drained bacon (the bacon is optional).
Chop one large onion, mince two cloves of garlic, cut one rib of celery, and dice three
peeled carrots. Add these to the pot. Add cold water or stock to reach within an inch or
so of the top of the pot, and then let it simmer for about two hours, stirring
occasionally. You may need to add more liquid as it cooks, so therell be plenty of
sopping juices. Taste for salt and add pepper. Be prepared to dig into a rich,
satiny-textured dish as comforting as a nap on Grandmas lap. Try it, and tell me if
you dont agree.
And Then Theres Chili
could argue for days and never agree on the proper way to make a blazing pot of chili. I
once attended a chili cook-off, and I have never witnessed passions running so high. Each
participant in this all-male event had his own designated area. Stoves were assembled,
ingredients were guarded, spices were considered, and then cooking was performed with
macho zeal. I thought it was humorous. Ha! They were dead serious. I know that an
authentic chili is a far cry from the fryin pan chili of my youth. It can be made
with beans alone, with just meat and no beans, or with meat and beans together.
Heres what I like: I like chili made with beans, and Ill add meat if I feel
like it. I begin with the beans. I use pinto or cranberry beans, though Ive found
that black beans make a dandy chili as well. Realistically, if not authentically, almost
any bean welcomes the vibrant spices that give chili its name.
I use several kinds of chili powder as well as dried and
fresh chili pods in my chili for a complex layering of heat, sweetness, and smokiness.
Besides the New Mexico and California chili powders, I like the smoky flavor of chipotle
chilies, the hot heat of serrano and habanero chilies, the deep heat of guajillo chilies,
and the warm richness of roasted poblano chilies. I prefer to toast the chili powders, and
spices before adding them to the beans. Toasting brings out the chilies sweet, smoky
heat and softens the chalky, bitter flavor of ground cumin. I place a tablespoon of olive
oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the chilis and other spices, and stir for one or
two minutes, until the spices warm and mellow. Chili powder burns quickly, so watch the
skillet. Deglaze the pan with a bottle of beer if you like: it will give a subtle
sweetness to the bean broth. I like my chili brothy enough to be a little soupy; enough so
that I can dip warmed tortillas into it.
For those of you interested in exploring the mighty
range of chilies, most major supermarkets now provide a decent selection of chilies and
chili powders. The best place, of course, is an authentic ethnic market. Short of that,
Ive included my favorite recommendations for companies who sell by mail order. A
call to them gets you a mailbox full of pamphlets, which may send you directly to the
stove. One is Penderys in Dallas, Texas (800-533-1870). Theyll send you a
booklet packed full of listings for various chilies, spices, and chili-related goodies.
The other is The Chile Shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (505-983-6080). They will send you
their catalog of spices and detailed descriptions of each spice, helpful to both the
experienced and the novice cook. For the heat of chili in a bottle, I recommend the Coyote
Cocina label. They produce fine salsas, sauces, and dips so delicious that they carry a
warning label: "Use at your own risk!" Call them in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at
800-866-HOWL, to find a source near you.
For some of us, the winter season lasts a long time.
During this time, while the garden is quiet, warm the cold, gray days with pots of
fragrant beans cooked to a savory turn. While youre at it, explore the heat of the
various chilies to spice up your winter nights. ©
LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people
currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr.
Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms
closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters the transformative role
that growing, cooking, and sharing food can play in the creation of a more humane society.