Edible beans

I have been here and there and seemingly everywhere this past month. The last stop was Santa Barbara where I attended the Edible Institute, a 2-day conference put on by the Edible Communities magazines.* As I wrote over at Local Foods, I came home humbled and inspired – not a bad combination.

Of the many things I’m excited about after this conference – rooftop produce gardens, the notion of having food labeled when it’s been sprayed with pesticides instead of when it hasn’t, of food writing as the ultimate liberal arts exercise (thanks for that one, Molly O’Neill) – what I’m really jazzed about is beans.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Sando and his Rancho Gordo beans for years. I honestly don’t remember when I first had them or saw them or heard about them. I know, from his talk, that it was in the last 8 – 10 years, since that’s how long he’s been growing and selling heirloom beans. Now I could go into how Sando revives heirloom varieties of beans, or is forming partnerships with Mexican growers to create a market for their traditional crops and products, or emphasize the degree to which he should seriously consider changing his career path to include stand-up comedy. Instead, I will stick to what was most amazing.

Most of the dried beans sold in the U.S. are old. I sort of knew this. I thought they were all at least a year if not two years old by the time we all brought them into our kitchens.

If only.

A year or two is just fine, claims Sando. The problem is that for the most part we’re not getting beans a year or two old. We’re getting beans that have been sitting in silos for up to ten years, or even longer. Yeah. I know. It explains a lot. It explains why they are often so dusty – not dirty from the field, but dusty from being in storage. It also explains why they don’t tend to cook evenly and why they often go from pebble-like to mush in a single stir of the spoon.

Last night I cooked up a pot of Rancho Gordo cannellini beans just as Sando suggested: sauté some mirepoix (onion, carrot, and celery peeled or cleaned and diced – I used 1 onion, 2 carrots, and 3 stalks of celery, but that’s me) and garlic (I used 4 cloves, but we’re a garlic-loving bunch at our house) in olive oil, add beans (I had put a pound of them up to soak that morning, but Steve claims it’s not really necessary) and enough water to cover generously; bring to a boil then down to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender – allow 2 hours but they are likely to be done more in the hour to an hour-and-a half range.

Besides just using water and not bothering to add any broth and not worrying too much about remembering to soak the beans, the other great tip I got was when to salt. Salt supposedly toughens bean skins, so many people warn against salting beans during cooking. Yet unsalted beans and unsalted broth are, well, not so delicious. I’ve always added salt at the end and allowed the mixture to sit so the beans pick up some of the salt added to the cooking liquid. Steve recommends salting 3/4 of the way through cooking – when the cooking smell shifts from the aromatics (onions, etc.) to the beans themselves. This involves paying a bit of attention, of course, but I find well-tended food tastes better in the end, anyway.

To these creamy, soft, distinctive beans I added a drizzle of fancy olive oil, a few grinds of black pepper, and a dollop of chile-green onion relish (1 red fresno chile, 1 anaheim chile, 4 green onions, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons olive oil, and 2 teaspoons lemon juice).

And that delicious liquid in which the beans have cooked? It’s called “pot liquor” (sometimes less appetizingly written “pot licker”). Oh yeah. Have a spoon or bread nearby with which to eat it up.

This “recipe” may not be original, but in the ever-sage words of Russ Parsons: stories that aren’t original are suspect, recipes that are original are suspect. Words for a food writer to live by.

* Full disclosure: As regular readers know, I frequently write for Edible San Francisco.