Beans have always been a punch line, an insult, unfairly maligned. The musical fruit. Something you’re full of. A whole hill of them? Not worth much.
Well look at beans now. The whole country just went and bought a lifetime’s supply. The bean shelves at the grocery store have been stripped bare. From Rancho Gordo’s dried heirloom beans to Goya’s canned ones, bean sales have quadrupled. At Baer’s Best Beans in South Berwick, Maine, they’re normally winding down this time of year, says Carol Baer. Instead, the grower of regional heirloom beans is selling what’s left of the past harvest, which they usually wouldn’t dip into until after summer vacation, when cooler weather returns. It’s the revenge of the beans! This is their time to shine.
In truth, I think we were ready. Even before coronavirus, beans were ascendant. More people are turning to plant-based diets, and beans are an excellent, versatile, and delicious source of protein. The hummus craze introduced chickpeas as kind of a starter bean. Alison Roman’s chickpea stew recipe in The New York Times nearly broke the Internet.
I’m hoping everyone who stocked up on black beans, kidney beans, cannellini, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lentils will now actually eat them, because to cook with these ingredients is to love them. With canned beans, you have a nearly instant workday lunch or side dish. (Two personal staples: Chickpeas tossed with tomato, cucumber, feta, flat-leaf parsley and/or basil, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Black beans tossed with corn, tomato, avocado, cilantro, shallot, olive oil, sherry vinegar, cumin, cayenne, and salt.)
And dried beans, which can feel intimidating or at least confusing, don’t need to be: Just cook them in water until they are done. You can soak them — they’ll cook faster that way — but it’s also OK if you don’t. In the old days, back when I used to leave my house, I usually cooked beans in a pressure cooker, which speeds things along. But in this new life, when it’s easy to occasionally drift through the kitchen to give something a stir, it’s nice to have a big pot burbling over a low flame. It’s cozy. It can trick me into a kind of snow-day vibe for a minute, until I accidentally look at Twitter and need to do my deep breathing for a while and maybe have my midmorning glass of wine. Just kidding. Sort of.
I like Rancho Gordo owner Steve Sando’s method for cooking basic beans: Rinse them; soak them in a big pot if you have time; sauté chopped onion, carrot, celery, and garlic in olive oil; add more water to the pot if you need to (it should be a few inches above the beans); and add the vegetables to the pot. Bring to a boil on medium-high; after 10-15 minutes, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot with the lid tilted to let steam escape, and leave the beans to simmer until they smell great. Then add some salt and let them cook until they’re fully tender.
I will happily eat a bowl of beans in a little of their own broth, drizzled in good olive oil and coarse salt, at any time of day. I might shave some Parmesan over them and add a squeeze of lemon. I might add some Valentina (black label, not yellow), probably my favorite bottled hot sauce of them all. I also think we need to talk about lentils and how wonderful and amazing they are. I eat lentils every week in some form or another: brown lentil soup bright with lemon (an excellent place to deploy frozen blocks of chopped spinach, worth having around for soups and stews right now), red lentils made into dal or a Turkish soup with bulgur drizzled in chile-mint butter, tiny green lentils glossed with vinaigrette in a sort of bistro salad, with hard-boiled eggs, asparagus, sliced tomatoes, and whatever else is lying around.
If I had to pick just one way to eat beans forever, I would look to Mexico. In his new cookbook, “Cool Beans,” Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan offers a recipe for cranberry (a.k.a. borlotti or cacahuate) beans from Mexico City chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia. “These are some of the simplest and yet most complex beans I’ve ever tasted,” Yonan writes: cooked until they’re soft, then seasoned with a sofrito of onion, garlic, tomatoes, and dried chiles and cooked some more. Sold. (You can substitute canned tomatoes in the cooked beans, and other kinds of dried chiles if that’s what you’ve got, but for the pico de gallo, you really need fresh ingredients. I would also not say no to these beans topped with salsa from the jar.)
Lalo’s Cacahuate Beans With Pico de Gallo
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish
1 white onion
1 pound dried cranberry beans, soaked overnight
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large tomatoes, chopped
2 dried ancho or guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, and cut into strips
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
PICO DE GALLO (MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS)
2 plum tomatoes, chopped
1/3 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1. Cut the onion in half. Keep one half intact and throw it into a large pot. Chop the other half and reserve.
2. Add the beans and 1 of the garlic cloves to the pot, along with enough water to cover the beans by 3 inches, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat as low as it will go, cover, and cook until the beans are tender, 60 to 90 minutes.
3. Chop the remaining garlic clove.
4. While the beans are cooking, make the sofrito: Pour the oil into a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the reserved chopped onion and the chopped garlic and cook until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chiles and cook until the tomatoes break down, release their liquid, and become very soft, and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
5. When the beans are tender, stir in the sofrito, increase the heat to high, and cook, uncovered, until the beans are very soft and starting to break apart and the liquid has reduced by about one-third but the beans are still brothy, about 30 minutes. Stir in the salt, taste, and add more if needed.
6. While the beans are cooking, make the pico de gallo: In a mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, chile, olive oil, lime juice, cilantro, and salt. Taste and add more salt if needed.
7. When the beans are ready, divide them among shallow bowls and top each portion with some pico de gallo. Serve hot, with tortillas. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Adapted from “Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking With the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, With 125 Recipes,” by Joe Yonan
Other things to try
- This chana masala from the blog Orangette. The sweet love story that precedes the recipe has evolved since. The dish is the same as ever: really, really delicious, due in part to the gradual addition of water at the end, which makes the chickpeas so tender and helps concentrate flavor. It’s a neat technique. The recipe says you can add yogurt or not. I have made this so many times and have never once added it. Maybe next time.
- This fast, easy, nourishing red lentil and bulgur soup from Saveur. Again, it features a neat technique: grating the tomatoes.
- This very easy and tasty thing to do with your canned beans, inspired by a dish I ate at a Keralan restaurant in London years ago: Heat some oil and toss in a handful of mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add some turmeric, ground coriander, and cumin seed, or whatever combination of these you have. After a minute, when the spices are fragrant but before they burn, toss in some chopped shallot and grated ginger. (Or some garlic, or some onion, or skip the ginger if you’re out.) Cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots soften. Add some drained canned beans (I like black-eyed peas, but anything works), chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, and some curry leaves, if you happen to have them. If you don’t, try a squeeze of lemon instead. Cook it down a bit so the flavors mingle, add salt to taste, and stir in some plain yogurt and/or coconut milk. Top with chopped cilantro and serve over rice.
Question of the day: Are you cooking your beans, definitely thinking about one day cooking your beans, or beginning to feel bean-buyer’s remorse?
Thinking of you, good people.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.