If you don’t know Crescent Dragonwagon, it’s certainly not for lack of a track record. The Vermont-based writer, teacher, and former innkeeper is the author of 50 books (fiction, children’s literature, and cookbooks), the best known of which is the James Beard Award-winning “Passionate Vegetarian.” All that, in addition to the most unforgettable name in the business.
Her current “Bean by Bean” (see related story, Page 18) is a godsend for both the health-conscious and the frugal-minded. Bean cookery, with its long soaks and remarkable potential for tedium, can end up being a lot less inspiring for the palate than it is for the wallet and physique. If there is a riper subject for a bit of enthusiastic proselytizing, I don’t know it. Yet in an era when you can find dozens of cookbooks on nearly any subject you can name, bean books have been strangely few in number.
One of the virtues of “Bean by Bean” is its liberal definition of “bean” to include leguminous products you might not instantly recognize as all that beany. Hence the sticky and generously paprika-ed “Gotcha-Hotcha Sweet-Smoky Cocktail Peanuts” (Dragonwagon has a thing for exuberant recipe titles), which crunch and crackle under their roasted and sugared coats in a most unbeanlike manner.
Another not-quite-a-bean hit is an oven-baked tempeh, marinated in tamari and vinegar and a raft of pick-and-choose seasonings — garlic, ginger, pepper, honey, sesame oil, hot sauce, tomato paste, and coriander. Having eaten more than my share of bland tempeh over the years, I simply used them all. If you do the same, you’re likely to find the results refreshingly lively.
The author isn’t fussy about using cans instead of soaked beans, which means there are a few recipes that speed to the table.
A beans and greens pasta appears, at first glance, far too simple to satisfy, featuring an austere pairing of Swiss chard and chickpeas tossed in pasta with lemon, garlic, and chili. Yet Dragonwagon’s slightly backward technique (chili, then oil, then greens, then garlic) keeps her flavors bright and pungent, and I can see why she describes it as a weekly household staple.
The aptly named “mixed beans with a lot of ginger” turns out to be the perfect dish to make in a hurry for a crowd, so long as you’ve got seven cans of beans and a bunch of cilantro on hand. It also makes use of a full quarter-cup of grated fresh ginger, which, if you haven’t tried it, is one extremely effective way to wake up three pounds of beans pronto.
If you’re up for an overnight soak, Cuban black bean soup develops good flavor with its onion and green pepper sofrito. It’s better the next day, as is the author’s vegetarian red chili, a straight-ahead dish with some Summer of Love additions (principally tamari and beer).
The only real disappointments comes, as is so often the case, with lentils. I am a big fan of mudjardara (spelled mjeddrah here), a humble lentil and rice dish found all over the Middle East. This one is overcooked, mushy, and pale, redeemed only by a garnish of crispy deep-fried onions (and what can’t be redeemed by deep-fried onions?).
I quite like the combination of goat cheese, beets, oranges, and walnuts that grace the author’s marinated lentilles du Puy, even though the cooking time again is too long. At my supper table, I was the dish’s only fan. One family member compared the mix to “compost,” and advised me to add some straw to improve the carbon uptake.
Indeed, by this time my children were in open revolt, they had been eating healthy legumes for a week with mounting impatience. There followed a general outcry for meat. I was surprised it took that long, since in my experience a diet of beans is more likely to pall within two days. I viewed the delay in uprisings as a genuine endorsement of this food.T. Susan Chang can be reached at email@example.com.