When I tell people about my latest cooking project, I usually get one of two reactions. They are either very excited and very able to relate to what I am scheming, usually an elaborate multipart recipe made using precious ingredients. Or they fall somewhere between boredom and skepticism, with a dash of food snob accusation thrown in for good measure.
I get it. Not everyone is thrilled by a homemade aioli, and that is fine.
It is now that I must share my most recent cooking truth: I finally got my hands on some heirloom beans.
What are heirloom beans? Great question.
According to Rancho Gordo, a Napa, Calif.-based specialty food company credited with popularizing this sort of bean, they are “open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean.”
They continue on their website to say that heirloom beans “tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.”
According to Food & Wine, heirlooms “are grown from seeds that have been handed down through generations and preserved for distinctive traits like looks or taste. The results can be uniquely delicious and even beautiful.”
Okay, this is starting to make more sense. Unique, beautiful, distinctive. Rather than the three to five dried bean varieties you may find on a standard grocery store shelf, places that sell heirloom beans open the door to an entirely new world of legume.
When the coronavirus pandemic first started, and we were facing an indeterminate amount of time in our homes, I went all in on food products that I had been wanting to try but could never justify spending the money and time on. With the cash I was no longer spending on dining at restaurants or drinking at bars (insert sob here), I ordered a couple of packages of fancy pasta from Eataly. Some flaky Maldon salt. And dried beans from Rancho Gordo.
I got some large limas and some garbanzos, and then a bunch of varieties I had never heard of: Caballero Bean, Scarlet Runner Bean, Santa Maria Pinquito Bean, Christmas Lima Bean.
The fun of heirloom bean-ing is in discovering those new varieties, yes, but it’s also in taking the time to lovingly nurture the beans from their dried state to a warm bowl of goodness.
Canned beans are wonderful. I use them all the time. They are convenient and flavorful and versatile. Cooking dried beans is an entirely different thing. When you cook beans from their dried state, you get to control everything about their environment: how much cooking liquid, how that cooking liquid tastes, whether they are al dente or downright mushy, the salt content.
The Rancho Gordo beans I ordered from California and waited four weeks to arrive on my doorstep ended up being some of the best-tasting beans of my life. That’s part bean (most dried beans sold in grocery stores are quite old by the time you eat them) and part bean preparation.
For one meal, I made the large limas, assembling a collection of flavor bombs before cooking the beans. I watched Bon Appétit writer Carla Lalli Music demonstrate how to make dried beans four times in a YouTube video before I got started, and heeded two very important pieces of advice from her instruction. One: Beans need a ton of salt, and it should be administered during every step of the cooking process. Two: Dried beans must be cooked with a substantial amount of fat.
Fat! Is that why I can never get my beans to taste as good as they do in a restaurant? Turns out, yes.
I reserved some fat from chicken thighs I cooked for dinner the night before, scooping the fat into the large pot of water along with my beans.
I did opt for an overnight bean soak, which some cooks find essential and some do not. I think it helps speed things along, and it’s easy enough to do. That soaking water goes into the pot with the beans, providing the base for what will become a sumptuous broth. Make sure you have enough water in there to cover the beans entirely, or they will cook unevenly.
You’re really trying to cook these beans more like you would pasta, not as much like rice, with a precise rice-to-water ratio. These beans should be swimming in the water.
That, plus the fat, plus lots salt, is really all you need. But you could also add, as I did for this first lima batch: a lemon halve I charred in my cast iron skillet, some fresh parsley, lots of black pepper, some crushed garlic cloves.
Then you cook, and taste, and cook, and taste, until the beans are tender and perfectly salty and the cooking liquid also tastes delicious.
For the second batch, I tried cooking with caballero beans with some beef fat, cilantro, garlic and a little bit of leftover sausage. The medium-sized white beans turned very creamy, the broth dark and meaty.
By the time I cooked my third batch of heirloom beans, I realized it was very hard to screw up an ingredient this good. How precious, indeed.
1 pound dried beans, rinsed
At least 4 teaspoons salt
½ cup olive oil, or other fat (from chicken, beef or pork)
4 to 6 garlic cloves, crushed
4 fresh thyme sprigs, or a handful or fresh parsley or cilantro
1 lemon, halved and charred, optional
Place beans in a large bowl or container; cover with cold water to 4 inches above beans. Refrigerate overnight.
Add beans, water and 1 teaspoon salt to a large Dutch oven or pot and bring to a boil. Skim the surface occasionally; your beans will get foamy.
Add oil and any other fats, plus 2 teaspoons salt, garlic, herbs of choice and lemon, if using. Reduce heat to low or medium-low. Cover, and keep at a rolling simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in another 1 teaspoon salt. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Cover and simmer another hour or more. Taste about 30 minutes in, to see how tender the bean is.
After an hour, taste the broth. It should taste really good. If it doesn’t, add more salt and pepper and maybe more fat. Taste beans, and if they’re tender, serve.
Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times