Feb 102013

A variety of heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo

For years I had a simple dietary resolution: eat more beans. The reasons are multitudinous: they’re inexpensive, ridiculously nutritious, and are fantastic sources of protein, high-quality complex carbs, and fiber. But for a handful of reasons, I failed again and again into incorporate more legumes into my diet.

Rancho Gordo scarlet runner beans

These reasons were the same ones that I suspect keep many Americans from eating them as well: they take forever to cook; they taste lackluster; and the canned varieties, while convenient, suffer from sodium over-dose, have awful texture, and don’t have any more flavor than their home-cooked bretheren.

Rancho Gordo garbanzo beans

I continued in this well-meaning but ultimately bean-less quandary for ages until one of my food-blog-heriones well-nigh split the clouds, poured out a sunbeam, and started up a soundtrack of glorious voices. My curiosity was piqued and before long I was placing my very first order at Rancho Gordo (and having some of them shipped to my Mom, too. I’m such an enabler!).

Rancho Gordo soaked good mother stallard beans

Would it be cliche to say that these beans changed the way that I eat? Well, even if it is a tired and worn-out idiom, I don’t care: they really did change my kitchen and my diet. These heirloom beans are the answer to every single problem I cited above without rejecting any of the this-is-why-they’re-good-for-you statements above. Before long, I found myself with cooked beans always in my fridge, waiting to be eaten for any meal (including breakfast) or thrown into any soup. Rancho Gordo’s catalog boasts a dizzying variety of beautiful beans you’ve never heard of, many of them incredibly versatile. For instance: the vaquero beans are a dream in chilis, good mother stallards will make you swoon when served with a scrambled egg and toast, ultra-creamy runner cannellinis were born for soup, and borlottis are ideal in nearly any Italian application. Their garbanzos will make the best hummus you’ve ever had and Rio Zapes will sing with a squeeze of lime. Sangre del toro beans will knock your socks off in red beans and rice.

Rancho Gordo borlotti beans

It’s not very often that we Americans come across a real honest healthy food as humble as the bean that is beautiful and delicious too, so I feel compelled to share my legume epiphany with, well, everyone. Forget everything you know about grocery-store beans (which may have been in storage for about a decade; hence their miserable performance in the kitchen) and hunt down some fresh beans. Ah, but you’re worried about (ahem) the gastrointestinal distress that can accompany an indulgence in beans? Just keep eating them. Your body will get better at digesting them. I promise. And your taste-buds? They’ll be thanking you from bite one.

Rancho Gordo midnight black beans

Basic Cooked Beans
Adapted from guidelines provided by Rancho Gordo
Yield varies

Good rule of thumb: beans will triple in size when cooked. If a recipe calls for a 14-ounce can of beans, substitute about 2/3 cup dried. This works for nearly every variety I’ve tried.
Beans are forgiving: this is not baking. This is not the only way to cook a pot of beans. If you want to do something differently, do it!
Cooked beans sing when topped with an acid, and lime juice is the best acid you could use. If you ever thought beans were humble before, try them with a squeeze of lime.
Another word on acid: don’t add it too early in the cooking process. Wait until the beans are very nearly fully-cooked before adding something like tomatoes because the acid can toughen un- or par-cooked beans.
You should also wait to add salt until the beans are about half-way to three-quarters done — the point of no return, or, as Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando so eloquently (and memorably) put it, “when the beans are your bitch.” Adding salt too early can toughen the beans. Cook’s Illustrated recommends brining beans while you soak them, but in my experience, that only extends the cooking time (by a couple of hours), so I don’t do it. Maybe it works for grocery-store beans, but don’t do it with good, fresh heirlooms.
The pot-liquor left over from cooking a pot of heirloom beans is a beautiful thing. Save it and use it! For example, when I make my three-bean cocoa chili (which calls for about a quart of water), I replace the water with an equal portion of bean-broth, which gives it extra flavor and body.
Cooked beans freeze very well. I prefer to freeze them in their bean-broth, but have heard of others draining them and freezing them.
1 pound dried heirloom beans
Water, to cover
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Several cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
A couple of sprigs of fresh herbs, optional (type will depend on bean variety. For example: I like black beans with thyme, borlottis with rosemary, and good mother stallards with sage)
Salt, to taste
Freshly-ground pepper, to taste
Accompaniments of your choice: fresh lime juice, avocado, minced red onion, cilantro, feta, etc.

The Rancho Gordo Manner — for those who plan ahead

Sort through the beans, picking out stones, clods of dirt, etc. Wash the beans until the rinsing water runs clean. Put the beans in a bowl and cover with several inches of fresh cold water (filtered, if your tap water tastes bad). Cover the bowl and let sit.
As your beans are soaking, the skin will re-hydrate first and become wrinkled. As the inside of the bean absorbs water, it will begin to fill out the skin. The beans are fully-soaked when the skins are taut again. This will take anywhere from four- to 24-hours (or possibly even longer, if your beans are really old, which is probable if they’re from the grocery store).
Once the beans are fully soaked: in a pot that is at least three-quarts large, heat the oil over medium heat until shimmery. Add the onion and saute until softened, about six minutes. Throw in the garlic cloves and saute for an additional minute or two.
Pour in the beans and their soaking water. Add additional water if needed so that they are covered by several inches of water. Throw in your herb sprigs, if using. Bring to a boil and keep at a hard boil for five minutes, lowering the heat slightly if needed to prevent a boil-over. Skim off any foam that rises to the top, if you want.
Lower the heat so that the beans are at just a bare simmer. Cook, adding more water as needed. After about half an hour, taste the beans. If they have reached the point of no return (about three-quarters cooked), add salt and pepper. If not, check them every fifteen minutes or so, and salt them when appropriate.
Continue to cook the beans until they are fully tender. Serve the beans with or without the pot-liquor (which is very good when it comes from heirloom beans) and any accompaniments you please, or save to use in your favorite recipe.

The Parsons Method — good for non-runner varieties (e.g. runner cannellinis and scarlet runners are not well-suited for this method)

Preheat your oven to 350F. Sort and clean beans as above. In a Dutch oven on the stove-stop, heat oil until shimmery, then cook onion as above.
Add garlic, pepper, herbs, and beans to Dutch oven and then cover with a couple of inches of water. Bring to a simmer, then cover the Dutch oven and place it in the oven. The beans will be ready in 1-3 hours (depending on variety). Add salt half-way through cooking.

In a Slow-Cooker

Put the sorted and cleaned beans in a slow-cooker and cover with several inches of water. Add onion, garlic, herbs and pepper. If you’re going to be awake and near-by the slow-cooker during the cooking process, wait to add the salt; otherwise add it now. Cook on low for about 8 hours, salting between 4-6 hours, if possible.
Once the beans are cooked, you may want to reduce the bean-broth. The covered cooking-environment prevents the pot-liquor from reaching its true potential, so if you care about that, strain out the beans and boil the broth until it’s reached the desired flavor concentration.

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