The New Year brings thoughts of black-eyed peas and other traditional savory meals that are harbingers of good health, and—according to legend—various forms of good luck. But there’s an alternative to Black Eyed Peas: in many kitchens, especially in the Southwest, New Year’s also means simmering up a big pot of common pinto or a more unusual (even to most good cooks) heirloom variety from various specialty companies (listed below).
The beans have names redolent with a bygone era of wood-burning stoves, long hot days in the fields, and the rustling clatter of a fall harvest’s dried bounty clattering onto your grandma’s chipped white porcelain plate for sorting before cooking: Alubia Blanca, Eye of the Goat (Ojo de Cabra), Good Mother Stallard, Sangre do Toro...and dozens more, especially when you pay a visit to purveyors like Rancho Gordo.
Perhaps the most accessible and reassuring description of how to cook beans comes from Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. It’s worth sharing in entirety before we get down to a favorite recipe:
There is not one single method of cooking beans. At its most basic, you want to simmer the pot until the beans are soft. Soaking can speed up the process and vegetables or stock will make them more flavorful. It's really that simple. There's all kinds of fine tuning and variables, but basically, this is it.
Normally on a bean cooking day (which frankly is everyday at Rancho Gordo), I put the beans to soak in the morning, after rinsing in lots of cool water and checking for small debris. I cover the beans by about an inch or so. If you haven't soaked, don't fret. Go ahead and cook them, knowing it will take a bit longer.
Heirloom and heritage varieties don't need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh, which I'd define as within two years. You can use a ham bone, chicken stock or as I prefer, simply a few savory vegetables. A classic mirepoix is a mix of onion, celery and carrot diced fine and sautéed in some kind of fat, often olive oil. A crushed clove of garlic doesn't hurt. If I'm cooking Mexican or Southwestern, I will sauté just onion and garlic in mild bacon drippings or even freshly rendered lard.
Add the beans and their soaking water to a large pot. You have been told before to change the water and rinse the beans. The thinking now is that vitamins and flavor can leech out of the beans into the soaking water you are throwing down the sink. There is conflicting scientific evidence that changing the water cuts down on the gas. If you want to, do it. If it seems unnecessary, don't.
If you've soaked them, the beans will have expanded, so make sure they are still covered by at least an inch, maybe a bit more. Add the sautéed vegetables and give a good stir. Raise your heat to medium high and bring to a hard boil. Keep the beans at a boil for about ten to fifteen minutes. After so many years, I think this is the moment that really matters. You have to give them a good hard boil to let them know you're the boss and then reduce them to a gentle simmer, before covering. I like to see how low I can go and still get the occasional simmering bubble. Open and close the lid, or keep it ajar to help control the heat and allow evaporation. The bean broth will be superior if it's had a chance to breathe and evaporate a little.
When the beans are almost ready, the aroma will be heady. They won't smell so much like the vegetables you've cooked but the beans themselves. At this point, I'd go ahead and salt them. Go easy as it takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt. If you want to add tomatoes or acids like lime or vinegar, wait until the beans are cooked through.
If the bean water starts to get low, always add hot water from a tea kettle. Many believe that cold water added to cooking beans will harden them. At the very least, it will make the cooking take that much longer to bring them back to a simmer. We don't recommend using hot tap water, straight from a water heater. Better to heat the tap water in a tea kettle or pan first
So you're done! Once you've mastered this method, go ahead and try some different techniques. Your bean friends will swear by this or that method and you should take their advice, keeping in mind there are few absolutes when it comes to cooking beans, only that it's very hard work to mess up a pot of beans.”
As usual, when looking for a vegetable recipe we turn to the high priestess, Deborah Madison, whose opus Vegetable Literacy (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2013) contains our favorite: Rio Zape Beans with Salt-Roasted Tomatoes (Rio Zapes are available through some of the sources listed below).
Want to take a quick look? It’s easy. The Rio Zape Beans with Salt-Roasted Tomatoes page is reproduced here in a promotion for the book, an must own for every Wellness Warrior's kitchen. The salt-roasted tomatoes referred to are easy: coat a few small or even “cherry” size tomatoes with olive oil, sprinkle on sea salt, and roast for an hour or so at 300°F until they look wizened...and yet delicious.
TOP PHOTO: Rancho Gordo beans via Flickr client Susie Wyshak
HEIRLOOM BEANS RESOURCES:
- Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food, Napa, California
- Zürsun Idaho Heirloom Beans , Twin Falls, Idaho
- Elegant Beans and Beyond (Mohr-Fry Ranches Since 1855), Lodi, California
- Purcell Mountain Farms, Moyie Springs, Idaho
- Alma Gourmet, fine Italian foods importer, New York