beans

Happy 2012

We bucked tradition this year. I usually cook up a pot of Hoppin’ John and braise some cabbage on January 1. This year I made red beans and rice and braised some kale. I know, I know – when will the madness stop?

My crew of two always compliments the Hoppin’ John and eats the luck-filled meal with good cheer. The red beans and rice? They were too busy shoveling it into their mouths to say much of anything until their bowls were empty, at which point they each, in their turn, got up from the table, headed into the kitchen, and loaded those bowls back up with seconds. I was left to mention, casually of course, that I thought the beans were rather good. They nodded their heads and mumbled something in agreement through their bean-filled mouths.

That dinner felt lucky, not just for the bounty symbolized by the many beans, but by their tenderness, the rich flavor from the smoked ham hock, the restorative nutrition of the whole combination. And, most of all, of course, by the fine company in which we ate.

We spent a slice of the winter break back in Minneapolis. While there I do crazy things like read the newspaper in its paper form. This causes me to read parts of the newspaper I don’t seek out online, like advice columns. One such column published a letter from a woman bereft at her holiday circumstances: because she doesn’t get along with her extended family and doesn’t really have any friends, she and her husband and daughter end up spending holidays “alone” and it is very depressing. That little ditty put a whole world to be grateful for into perspective for me, but mainly I was glad that the idea of spending a holiday with “just” my husband and son always strikes me as a delightful prospect.

Our new year was rung in not just with tasty red beans, but by several rounds of my favorite Christmas present: the Pride & Prejudice board game from Ashgrove Press:

Yep. It exists and it is awesome. It was given and received as a bit of a gag gift. Or, rather, the gift was as much the knowledge of the incredible fact that such a thing exists as it was the thing itself. But we punched out the paper shillings, separated the “Regency Life” cards from the “Novel” cards, chose our characters, and gave it a go. Rousing good fun ensued. My son insisted we play again. Yes. The eight-year-old boy wanted to play again. We’ve now played several times – enough so the cards have started to repeat, which takes away a bit, but by no means all, of the fun.

May 2012 be filled with peace and joy, of course, and also bounty and tenderness and rich flavors and health. What I wish for you and me both, though, is that it is also filled with delight. Expected delights – like dinner with friends and family – are nice but, just to keep things interesting, I also hope for plenty of unexpected delights like crazy board games based on classic novels.

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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.

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Barley beans chard soup with a chile swirl

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I am aware I just posted a soup with a fun little swirl on top. Well aware. People, it is cold in San Francisco. And buildings here are not properly insulated. And it’s a long and sad story, but I live in a house that lacks central heating. All I want to eat all day long during these bone-chilling damp months that pass for winter here is soup.

I have a feeling most of you know about the wonder that is barley bean chard soup – you cook up some barley (I boil mine in salted water until it’s tender to the bite which seems to happen in about 15 or 20 minutes), cook up some white beans (or use canned, but the canned ones are mushier – soak the beans overnight or use the quick soak method, then boil until just tender to the bite, add salt to the water and let them cool in the cooking liquid, then drain and use), heat those two things in some chicken broth, and add shredded chard leaves, cooking until they wilt. This soup is then most commonly topped with some grated Parmesan and some black pepper, maybe a swirl of olive oil if you’re feeling kicky.

When I made this, however, we had a small bowl of garlic- and chile-infused/cooked olive oil sitting on the counter – leftover from making pizza. I swirled it in. Divine. Perfection. Why the hell haven’t I been eating this for years?

And that’s how “recipes” are born.

Barley beans chard soup with a chile swirl

This soup can be as easy as dumping several cans together and throwing in a bag of baby spinach or as fancy-pants as making your own broth, cooking up dried beans, and growing your own chard. No surprise for regular readers, but I fall into that latter camp, although the chard I planted seems determined to stay at the baby stage, so we’re eating it in salads instead of working it into soups. Do you think it’s not growing bigger because we keep eating it? Maybe?

Note: You can cook the barley in the broth (you’ll need a lot more broth in that case), but I find it muddies the soup a bit – the barley releases starch and turns the whole thing cloudy.

1 bunch chard

3 Tablespoons olive oil

6 cups chicken broth (I like to make my own)

2 cups cooked white beans (or 1 can)

1 cup barley, cooked

3 cloves garlic

Red chile flakes

Cut white ribs out of green chard leaves. Slice stems crosswise as thinly as possible and set aside. Cut leaves into thin strips and set aside.Slice garlic into Goodfellas-style thin slices and set aside.

Heat a bit of the olive oil in a soup pot over medium high heat, add chard stems and cook, stirring, until they’re soft, about 5 minutes. Add broth, beans, and barley and bring just to a boil. Add chard leaves and cook until wilted, just a minute or two.

Meanwhile, heat remaining olive oil in a small frying pan. Add garlic and cook, swirling a bit now and then, jst until the garlic starts to turn golden. Add chile flakes to taste (I use about 1/4 teaspoon) and take off heat. Let sit in pan until garlic just starts moving from golden to brown. Pour flavored oil in a small bowl to stop the cooking.

Serve soup with a swirl of browned garlic- and chile-oil. Take it one more step with a grind or two of black pepper.

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Beans & greens


Yum. Shell beans, collard greens, and turnips greens cooked with a bit of chorizo and garlic in some homemade chicken broth. It was my version of Melissa Clark’s tempting recipe from this week’s New York Times. Corn bread on the side.

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Cold summer nights

Ernie summed up the frustration of many a San Franciscan on the way to school this morning: “Mama,” he asked, “why are these summer days so cold? Summer days are supposed to be hot.”

And yet they are not.

It’s dreary and cold, the middle of summer, and our cupboard is overrun with rice. Yes, that’s right: rice. I agree it is a better problem to have than being overrun with mice, but it’s ridiculous:

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And this is after I pulled out six (6!) 1-lb.bags of Minnesota wild rice because it was just embarrassing. My dashing husband asked how it could have happened. I had no clear answer. Yes, there was a rice story for Sunset. Yes, some of the above was given/sent to me by rice growers. But still. How does a person end up with three bags of “forbidden rice”? How much risotto do I think I’m going to make? Why a 5-lb. bag? I hope it was on super-sale.

So I let Ernie pick out the rice we would have for dinner and got to work. Something warming and yet summery. I didn’t hit it perfectly, but we were all surprised by how delicious everything was together.

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Some small white beans cooked in a broth of onions, celery, carrots, garlic, and peppercorns until tender, heat turned off, generous salt added, and allowed to cool in their broth until drained and sauteed in olive oil with garlic, red chile flakes, and parsley. I cooked the “wild rice” (I used some of the cultivated California stuff infecting my cupboard) with onion and celery and used the bean broth as the liquid. A handful of chopped walnuts thrown in at the end highlighted the nutty taste and texture. I will say this: California “wild rice” always seems to take about a thousand years to cook and it goes from underdone to overdone in about a second. If you’ve never had it, track down some of the real stuff. The kind that grows in rivers and marshes in Minnesota and Canada. You’ll never look back.

So now we’re warm and cozy, so we can stand a bit of summery “health salad” of chopped cucumber (garden and Armenian), red onion, and tomato. I used the red brandywines we got from the farm this week. They’re perfect for salads–firm enough to stand up to being dressed a bit. I also used some red wine vinegar I’ve been making. More on that later….

And I’m sorry for all that rhyming above. I don’t know what got into me.

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