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Bean basics

(article, Anne Zimmerman)

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On Saturday mornings at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, I make sure to stroll past the Rancho Gordo stall, with its rows of colorful dried beans. I like to admire the speckled beans and wonder at their strange names: Scarlet Runner, Appaloosa, Black Valentine, Eye of the Goat.

Rancho Gordo sells more than 30 varieties of heirloom beans, all grown in California. But what do you do with these unusual beans? I was never quite sure, although for reasons of health and economy, I wanted to make more elegant-yet-easy dishes featuring beans as the chief protein instead of meat. Which is why Heirloom Beans is such a welcome addition to my cookbook shelf. 

Included are recipes for standard bean favorites: chili, minestrone soup, red beans and rice, and New England-style baked beans. But the book is full of creative recipes, too, such as Risotto and Cranberry Beans with Pancetta, Marrow Beans with Clams and Chorizo, and Pasta with Beans, Broccoli Rabe, and Bacon. 

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For bean novices, the book’s assumption that you’ve already purchased, soaked, and cooked your beans before starting a recipe may make for some unhappy cooks. When I set out to make Tuscan Ribollita with Runner Cannellini Beans for a December dinner party, I skipped the pre-cooking part, assuming in a pre-holiday haze that the beans would just cook in the soup. Nope. If I’d read the directions carefully instead of just scanning the ingredients list beforehand, I’d have realized I needed to prep and cook the beans before I actually began making the soup. 

So be sure to read the section found before the recipes called “Basic Cooking Techniques for a Simple Pot of Beans.” It’s brief, informative, and completely demystifies the soaking, seasoning, and cooking process. And it will make recipe execution go much more smoothly. 

I was also flummoxed when I couldn’t locate the heirloom beans many of the recipes called for. Heirloom Beans, naturally, suggests using fresh Rancho Gordo bean varietals. (You can check bean availability and order them online from the Rancho Gordo website.) But the book’s authors, mindful of their audience, conclude most recipes with suggested bean substitutes; these beans are generally more familiar, will work equally well, and are usually far more easily sourced. 

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Feel free to make changes and substitutions yourself, too. When making the recipe for Christmas Lima Beans and Quinoa with Beets and Avocado, I had neither Christmas Lima Beans nor “regular” lima beans. But I did have freshly cooked black-eyed peas, which I included in this simple, flavorful salad and happily ate for lunch. Once you get comfortable cooking with beans, you’ll feel more creative about changing things up in the kitchen.

All of the recipes I tried in Heirloom Beans were good, but sometimes they were just an ingredient or two shy of being great. One evening, for example, I made Lorna Sass’s Scarlet Runner Beans with Farro Risotto and Saffron. I even made my own vegetable stock to contribute to a creamy and flavorful farro risotto. But the finished dish was still lacking something, something I couldn’t quite get my tongue to identify. Maybe next time I’ll come up with the missing link.

All this bean cooking, whether the dish was a hit or not, was satisfying on many levels: my budget, my sense of pride in the kitchen, and (usually) my taste buds. And of course, the beans are pretty and, with their rich yet mild flavors, incredibly versatile. Whether I buy them at the farmers’ market or not, dried beans are in my kitchen to stay.

p(bio). Anne Zimmerman is a writer and a Culinate blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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