Sunday, March 15, 2009

Beans: Getting Reacquainted With an Old Friend

Beans seem to be everywhere nowadays, quite fashionable in these times of fiscal restraint. I've never been a fan of dried beans, probably because the ones I have always tried to cook were simply too old. But I finally came to understand: Just because you buy a bag of dried beans, that doesn't mean you can save them for nuclear winter. But how do you know which bag of hard-as-rocks pellets on the shelf will cook up into something desirable?

Enter Steve Sando and Rancho Gordo. I first met Steve and enjoyed his remarks at a blogging workshop during the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference a couple of years ago (in fact, it was Steve and Pim of Chez Pim who helped me conquer my reservations--or cancel my reservations?--and get a food blog going. Thanks, you two!). In addition to the entrée on blogging, I learned about Steve's lovely heirloom beans and decided I really should give dried beans a second chance (what's all this about "give peas a chance" anyway?)

I mulled over which ones to fix first (I got crazy and bought three bags at Cube in L.A. last week). Borlotti? ooh, love that sexy Italian name. Yellow Indian Woman? They look good, but the name suggests confused and perhaps politically incorrect associations. Yellow Eye? Well, that's a symptom of jaundice, but, what the hey? I think the Yellow Eyes could use a little love today.

Into the cast iron pot went the Yellow Eyes, along with onion, carrot, celery, chicken stock, a few herbs from the garden and a fresh bay leaf from my new bay laurel tree (woo-hoo!). I included some chopped leek, since it makes everything it goes into velvety and lush, and I figured leeks certainly couldn't diminish a pot of beans. And I tossed in a hunk of hog jowl I'd stuffed into my suitcase when I returned from Memphis after Christmas.

Because they were not bagged in the Eisenhower era, Steve's beans cooked up beautifully, without having to be soaked. (That has always been one of my problems with dried beans--you had to have the forethought to put them in to soak the night before you wanted to eat them; then you had to be able to put together a future-dinner early the next day, so it could cook while you were at work. Dried beans were never a food I could enjoy on a whim.). The Yellow Eyes came out tender, with none of the mealiness that characterizes my usual best efforts at cooking any dried legume. And they were flavorful, thanks to both the freshness of the beans (I think dried beans that are past their prime get a little stingy with their flavor) and the addition of smoky pork product, which makes everything better.

I guess the lesson then is "Know your bean." Knowing the source of the beans certainly helped.

Speaking of beans, congrats to Ken Albala for snagging yet another award, this one the Cordon d'Or in Food Literature/History, for his book, Beans: A History, which remains partially read on my bed stand (there's quite a stack there--I read a few pages of each every night, so it takes me forever to finish a book). Reading Beans is almost as much fun as listening to Ken wax poetic and geeky over a beer about a subject he knows well and is clearly passionate about. Who knew beans could be such a fascinating topic? or that they could be tied so tightly to both the life and the death of Pythagoras? Before the word "vegetarian" came into use, non-meat eaters were called Pythagoreans. Fancy that...

I'd have to say I don't really know beans about beans, but with the help of Steve and Ken, I'm learning. Thanks, guys!

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