30 May 2011

A Bean Breakthrough

The Bean: not exactly a food that gets a lot of people excited. Luckily, I've eaten some really amazing beans in my lifetime and am convinced that humble though they may be, when cooked well they can be nothing short of a revelation.

I know this because I grew up with a dad with a real gift for bean cookery (he has a gift for most cookery, it's true) and though he never seems to cook them the same way twice, his black beans are always the best. I'm still dreaming of the tomato-stewed garbanzos or 'ceci' I ate in the foothills of the Italian Alps almost a decade ago, and I make regular pilgrimages to Casa de Luz, Austin's macrobiotic restaurant, for their impeccably tender and flavorful beans of all kinds.

Up until recently, though, I've been unable to work any bean magic in my own kitchen. It's not for lack of trying. I even bought a pressure cooker a few months ago with the hope that it would kick my bean cooking abilities up a notch. Unfortunately, I've churned out batch after batch of bad to mediocre beans. At the worst, I cook them forever and they never seem to get tender. At best, they're tender but the texture's somehow wrong or they just fall apart into a beany sludge. The frustrating part is that I've been following all the cardinal rules of cooking beans: I buy shiny, fresh-looking beans from stores with lots of turnover, I soak them overnight, I don't salt or add acidic ingredients until the end, etc. All for nought.

So a few weeks ago I decided to throw out all the rules. Specifically, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the renegade bean cook Russ Parsons of the LA Times. Parsons made waves a while back by declaring soaking to be a bunch of bunk and encouraging folks to salt throughout the bean-cooking process. A true maverick, Parsons also cooks his beans in the oven rather than on the stove. I like this guy.

Guess what?! Ignoring all the rules works! I've tried his method twice now with great results--a beany breakthrough at last!

If you're interested in giving this method a whirl, here's a long discussion about it: http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?%2Ftopic%2F99104-no-soak-beans-in-the-oven-in-90-minutes%2F

And a summary:
--preheat oven to 250 degrees
--use a pot with a tight-fitting lid (I use my cast iron dutch oven)
--pick through your beans for broken pieces, dirt, etc., rinse if you like, and cover with water about 1.5 inches higher than the beans. no soaking needed! (I didn't use this formula but if you're the formulaic type, you can try 6 cups of water/ 1 lb of beans)
--cover and bring to boil on the stove, then transfer the pot into the oven
--cook for about 40 mins, check the beans to make sure they have enough water, give 'em a stir, add salt (about 1 tsp kosher salt/lb beans) and return to the oven for about another 35 mins.
--after 75 mins total oven cooking, your beans should be cooked to perfection. Some batches may need a little more time (one of mine, when I was cooking some old beans that had been in my pantry for several years, needed about 20 more mins). Just keep an eye on them.

The first time I used this method I made some giant lima beans and turned them into this delicious Greece-inspired dish. It got rave reviews at a picnic and would be great on bruschetta.


1 lb gigates beans or peruvian limas
3-4 tomatoes or 5-6 canned whole san marzanos (I used canned), diced
1 large carrot
4 celery stalks
4 bay leaves
1 yellow onion
6 cloves garlic
1/4 cup plus 1 T olive oil
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2.5 tbs red wine vinegar
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill (I used about 1/6 cup dried--yep, lots!)
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the beans and bay leaves using the Parsons method discussed above. Turn oven up to 350 when done with beans. (You can cook beans ahead of time too)

Meanwhile, dice the onion, celery, carrots, and finely chop garlic. Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a very large skillet and add onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, until just translucent, then add carrot and celery. When carrots begin to get soft, add tomatoes, tomato paste, and red wine vinegar, and pepper flakes. Cover and let simmer, stirring frequently, about 30 mins or until tomatoes have broken down. Add parsley and dill and salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the beans, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking liquid and discard bay leaves. Combine the tomato mixture and beans, and cook a bit more to meld flavors, adding the reserved liquid if it seems too dry.

Cool to room temperature or chill and serve cold as a salad. You can also place the beans in a casserole in the oven at 425, covered in foil for about 30 mins, uncovered for another 10 and serve over bruschetta.