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In Season: Beans!

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Winter 1998

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 Mama’s 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 Kilpatrick’s white bread spread with mayonnaise and cold Van de Kamp’s canned pork and beans. Years later, as a young wife, I stained the bean section of the Woman’s 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 family’s 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, it’s 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 into mush.

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 bean’s 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 haven’t 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. Don’t 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

Beans are 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 soften—after the first hour or so of cooking—it’s time to add salt and any tomato product.

Now that you’ve 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 you’ve cooked—about a cup should do it—and 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 roasted meats.

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-law’s 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 coleslaw—and 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 there’ll 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 Grandma’s lap. Try it, and tell me if you don’t agree.

And Then There’s Chili

Chili aficionados 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. Here’s what I like: I like chili made with beans, and I’ll add meat if I feel like it. I begin with the beans. I use pinto or cranberry beans, though I’ve 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 chilie’s 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, I’ve 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 Pendery’s in Dallas, Texas (800-533-1870). They’ll 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 you’re 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.



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