The Humble Bean

Anasazi beans

Beans are one of the mainstays of my cooking.  Inexpensive and nutritious, it is no wonder that they feature so prominently in peasant cooking.  They also transcend the seasons.  You can enjoy fresh beans in the summer months and the more familiar dried varieties from fall, winter and spring. Cooked with sympathetic flavorings, beans not only taste delicious, but are also good for you.  This is my favorite kind of food-and what I crave to eat.


Most of us regard beans with suspicion.  A canned bean is not that noteworthy, in fact quite ordinary.  But a dried bean cooked properly might just convert you to all they can be.  Other than how good they are when cooked well, and how many meals you can get out of them, beans are economical because they are a cheap habit.  I always try to have on hand containers of little French flageolets, cranberry beans, inky black beans, and creamy white cannellini beans.

A simple pot of beans has many meals in it, and you’ve already done most of the cooking you need for many. A delicious simple lunch or light dinner could be some of the beans and broth heated up along with the rind from a piece of parmesan.  Smash the beans a little with a spoon as they warm.  Crack an egg or two into the beans, cover the pan and cook. Serve beans and egg over a piece of toasted day old country bread, season with salt and pepper and finish with a drizzle of good olive oil. Simple, humble, and satisfying.

The world of bean dishes is populous. Minestrone, ribollita and cassoulet, just to name a few. To make an authentic one, follow any of a thousand good recipes.  A simpler, utterly delicious version of cassoulet starts with cooking a mixture of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery, called a mirepoix, in olive oil, brown a small garlicky fresh sausage per person, spooning beans and mirepoix into a baking dish big enough to fit them snuggly, then nestle the sausages among the beans.  Add bean broth until it comes up just half way, then bake at 350 for about an hour until sausages are cooked through.  Once sausages are cooked top with toasted breadcrumbs and put under the broiler just long enough until crisp and browned.

Hopefully you are now convinced and maybe a little inspired to cook some of those beans that are probably just sitting in your pantry.  So go ahead and fill a pot with cold water and two cups of dried beans, put it on your counter and leave it there overnight.  You will be on your way to making beans that taste delicious on their own right. The way to keep bean soaking from getting in the way of your cooking beans is to detach the process from today’s hunger and expectation and pour dried beans into a pot whenever you think of it.

After their night of soaking, drain the beans and then cover them with two inches of fresh, cold water.  What gets flushed out of the beans through their overnight soak is what inspires that annoying symphony in most eaters.  I have heard that plants actually love the bean soaking water, I think they digest it more quietly.

Odds and ends added to your pot are crucial.  Your pot will benefit from a piece of carrot, whatever is left from a stalk of celery, half and onion, a clove of garlic.  I have even added fennel scraps and the fibrous leek tops.  Your pot also wants a handful of parsley stems, whole sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.  These can all be bundled with some kitchen twine to keep them manageable. 

Beans need salt. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that adding salt makes the beans crunchy and unlovable.  Not cooking beans for long enough keeps them crunchy, and under salting them is the leading culprit to making them unlovable.  I like to season the water like I would a soup or sauce.  So be sure to taste for seasoning.  The bean pot also needs a good dousing of olive oil to keep the whole shebang moving along.  The liquid in the bean pot becomes broth as beans cook in it, no ounce of the water that goes into a bean pot should be discarded.

Cooking beans is like boiling a chicken, or boiling an egg: only their water boils, and only for a second.  The rest of the cooking is slow and steady.  As the unwanted scum rises to the surface just skim it off and discard it.

As the beans cook they should look like they are taking a nice soak in a bath.  Their tops should be just under the surface of the liquid or the skins will become leathery and cracked.  Check the liquid level during the cooking process and add more water if necessary.

The length of time to cook the beans can vary, it can take up to 3 hours.  The best test is to taste them along the way.  You’ll know when their done when they are a velvety texture all the way through. The “five-bean” test is another option.  Taste five of the beans and if even one is not quite done let the whole lot cook a little longer. Of course, if you do very many of the “five-bean” tests you may have had your meal from the tasting.

A simple pot of beans is the essence of frugality, they are humble and simple to make.  Yet when I think of the meals that I have enjoyed most, it’s not the expensive, elaborate meals.  But ones that are actually quite plain and familiar.