I didn’t grow up with dried beans. Fresh-picked yellow summer wax beans with sautéed onions and hot, rich sour cream and black pepper, yes. Canned green beans, yep (it was the ’70s). Kidney beans, also canned, in chilli… uh-huh. And canned chickpeas in salads, yes (though not until the ’80s, on a salad bar, next to the raw, sliced button mushrooms.)
I didn’t really start exploring dried beans until a few years ago. What drew me to them? Scarlet Runner Bean flowers. When we moved into our new house, without much cash to spare for landscaping, I wanted a food-oriented garden patch – a potager, if you want to be fancy, which I always do – with vines and pretty flowers. So we planted sweet peas and Scarlet Runners. Those were fine. Modest but pretty flowers. Nice enough.
Then the blossoms fell. The basil flourished. Tomatoes – red, green, orange, purple, of all shapes and sizes – vined and blossomed and grew and ripened, obscuring the beans behind them. Cucumbers appeared. The salads were glorious.
The beans grew, untamed and largely forgotten. Fall came, as it does. Yard work went undone, and then was done only grudgingly, in the November chill. Brown bean stalks and pods, in the back of the garden along the fence, were the last to come down. And when they did, I cracked a pod open, more or less out of idle curiosity. And then another. And another. And another. And when I was done, I had this:
I was stunned. I had no idea beans could look like this. THEY’RE DIGITAL, I informed David, loudly. THEY’RE PIXELLATED, LIKE PORN IN 1999 BUT FASTER. So cool.
So I cooked them right away, right? Nah. I kept them in a jar for about 14 months. They seemed both precious and useless. Dried beans come in big 1kg bags. What the hell am I going to do with a half-cup of Scarlet Runner Beans? And who ever heard of eating Scarlet Runner Beans anyway? Have you ever seen a chilli recipe with them? I rest my case.
Two winters later, I got bored and cooked the beans, along with some others I had grown in the meantime. Slowly, carefully. I knew only one thing, and that was that I didn’t want them to blow out their skins. Their gorgeous, porno skins.
But nothing gold can stay, and sexy porn star beans lose their pixels in water. But when I sampled one, about an hour later… whoa. It was like fudge. Dense, but not dry or hard. Yielding, and profound. That single bean was a mouthful of fresh, vibrant and vegetal, deep and rich… food. That I grew and put away and brought from desiccation to deliciousness.
So I got more interested in beans. Here’s what I’ve learned about buying them and cooking them.
- Buy beans like you buy meat or cheese. They’re not a commodity. They’re not meant to be bought mindlessly, in bulk. They’re soil and sun turned into protein. That’s magic. When you buy a prime steak or a free-run chicken, it’s sort of an occasion, right? You have something in mind for them. That’s your meal. Bring that mindset to the market as you shop for beans.
- Find a source for fresh, locally grown, organic dried beans. They’re tastier, there are more varieties, and they cook faster and more reliably. You can find them at farmers’ markets, independent grocers, co-ops, and direct-to-market farms. Here, we buy them from Fresh From The Farm (with whom we have no sponsorship or relationship whatsoever). In the U.S., you can buy locally or by mail-order from Rancho Gordo.
- Salt your beans early. That’s right: salt does not make beans tough. (Acid makes beans tough… don’t cook beans alongside tomatoes until the beans have become tender.) Brine your pound of dried beans in a gallon of water with 3 Tbsp of fine sea salt, for 8-24 hours. Drain them, rinse them, and they’re ready to cook.
- Skip the pressure cooker if you care about the texture and appearance of the beans in your final dish. You’ll have more control over the cooking process if you can see it, and fresh, pre-soaked dried beans don’t take that long to cook… 90 minutes, tops.
- Cook beans in plenty of liquid, but don’t drown them. Cover them by 1.5 inches and have a kettle of hot water alongside to top up the level if the beans are at risk of being marooned before they’re tender. Cook them at a lively simmer.
- Flavour your simmering liquid aggressively. I always use a stick of celery, a carrot and half an onion (still connected at the root end), along with a cheesecloth bag containing a bay leaf, some peppercorns, a few sprigs of parsley, and a fresh herb appropriate to the dish I’m planning. Fresh sage is good for Italian. Thyme is good for French, as is savory. A dried arbol chilli or two is nice if you’re taking things in a south-western direction. I almost always add a few cloves of garlic. A generous few glugs of olive oil (say 1/3 C per lb. of beans) will cloak your beans in a delicious, light broth/sauce. A bit of smoked ham hock or a smoked ham bone is also nice, especially with black beans, and these (or, if you’re super-adventurous, half a pork trotter or a 5-inch square of pork rind) will add silky gelatine to your broth.
- They’re done when… you bite into one and it feels done. But don’t bother taste-testing until, when you take a few out of the broth and blow on them, the skin splits open on at least one of them.
- Bean broth is good food. You can serve the beans in the broth, or drain it off and use it to add body to a bean-centric soup or stew. You can also freeze it, if you have the space, and use it to kick-start your next batch of beans.
- Black beans are fabulous for refried beans (below) or a soup with cumin and some diced ham, topped with cilantro, sour cream and thinly sliced red onion marinated in red wine vinegar for 20 minutes.
- Cranberry / Romano beans are great served in a bit of their own broth, with some finely diced and sautéed mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion) and a bit of canned tomato, with chopped parsley on top.
- Flageolets, tender, pale-green French beans, are great served alongside spring lamb.
Recipe: Refried Black Beans (Frijoles Refritos)
3 chiles de arból, stems removed
5 avocado leaves (you can find these at Latin grocers)
4 cups (960 ml) cooked black beans, drained (reserve 1 cup/240 ml bean broth)
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil
¼ cup (30 g) chopped white onion
Put the chiles and avocado leaves in a comal or large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Stir and toast until aromatic, for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a blender, combine the beans, reserved bean broth, avocado leaves or their substitution, and chiles and blend until smooth.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and blended bean mixture and stir to combine. Lower the heat to its lowest setting and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring frequently, scooping and folding the beans repeatedly. Be vigilant to make sure the beans don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt to taste.
Once the refried beans reach a smooth, paste-like consistency, they are ready to serve.