How to Beat a Bean

22 12 2008

[This was originally posted 3/22/2008. Now, on a cold and snowy day in Seattle, today, I made a pot of Christmas Lima Beans with salt pork and chile peppers. It was so good, I decided to repost this on my new blog site.]

“Beans are neither fruit nor musical.” Nancy Cartwright

“With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bent arm for a pillow–I have still joy in the midst of all these things.” Kungfu-tse 

Rice is the food without which most of this world would not turn. But not in Texas. In Texas, it’s beans. Yeah, sure, over there in East Texas as you get close to Louisiana, they start eating rice with their beans, but shoot, they eat pork barbecue too! However, that’s a subject for another day.

Growing up in Texas, if there was one certain thing, as sure as the sun would come up and the land would get hotter than hell before the sun went back down, it was beans on the supper table. Most of my family came from Fort Worth or parts west, out in West Texas where it got really hot. And we ate beans. We called them red beans and it confused the hell out of me when I grew up and went somewhere else and red beans were really red and shaped like little kidneys. 

Anasazi beans. Real heirlooms. Probably the ancestors to pintos.

What we were really eating was pinto beans, God bless them! There’s a lot of ways to cook pinto beans and all of them good. My mother mostly cooked them with a bit of meat, some onion, and tomatoes. We ate them with corn bread.

I remember, when I was little, we had a pressure cooker that Mother was a little fearful of. She would put in the beans, tighten down the lid and leave the kitchen in a hurry. I was young then, but I kind of remember a pressure gauge of some sort that rattled around, and I remember best the day the pressure cooker blew and Mother had to scrape beans off the ceiling.

Then there was the story they always told about my brother Ronnie. Seems one time when he was a baby (16 years before I was born), he was crying. And he cried, and no one could get him to stop. Finally his grandmother said something like “Give me that child!” She took Brother into the kitchen and the crying ended. Everyone rushed in to see what had happened, and there was Mammy (grandmother) feeding my brother red beans.

As I have moved through this life, two steps forward and one step back, I have learned how to cook pretty well. But over the years I continued to struggle with beans. I tried all of the folk remedies: Soak them over night; bring them to a boil, turn it off and cover them for an hour; pour off your soaking liquid and wash them again.

My favorite bean pot. Hand thrown, glazed on the inside.

Well none of these methods worked to my satisfaction. The first thing I learned was, however Mother made those beans with tomatoes, she damn sure must not have cooked them in with the beans. Everyone, all the books, and every bean-cooking expert who ever put a pot on a stove says do not cook your beans with acid, it will make them tough. I ate a lot of tough beans before I gave up on putting tomatoes in with my beans.

Then I moved to Seattle. A strange little juxtaposition occurred. I moved away from red (pinto) bean heaven (Texas) as far west and north as you can get without being in Alaska, and I happened upon an old bean cooking method that dates back at least to New England and probably on over to the Old Country. In Seattle, Washington, I discovered the ceramic bean pot.

I may have discovered a ceramic bean pot, but I didn’t buy it, I just looked at it every time I went down to Pike Place Market and wandered through the Sur La Table store there. I looked at it, wondering if this was it. I wondered if this “thing” was the answer to my prayers. Then along came my friend Chris, a Canadian, who was hankering for a pot of Boston Baked Beans. I’m sure he didn’t call them that, I don’t know what Canadians call baked white beans with molasses, but Chris had a hankering.

A good bowl of beans.

So Chris proposed to buy me that bean pot I was always looking at if I would cook him up a mess of Canadian Baked Beans. I agreed, we had a deal, he bought me the pot and I went off home to learn how to use it. All my life beans had been cooked on the stove top, and always in an open pot, at least ever since the pressure cooker blew. But this thing was meant to cook beans in the oven. I guess that’s where the “baked” part came in.

I decided to give the pot a test run before I invited Chris over.

Following the directions, I loaded all the ingredients into my new pot and put it into a 325F oven. And I waited. And I waited. Then I waited some more and those darned beans had yet to even come to a simmer. So I decided to help them along. I pulled the cooker out of the oven, put it on the stove top where any self-respecting bean pot should be to begin with, and I turned on the electric burner. I put it on what you might call “kind of low.”

Then I left it alone to do its work. Some time later I was in the living room when I heard a sort of “flumph” sound. There was not anything in that kitchen that was supposed to make a “flumph” sound. Fearing the worst, I went in, and the new bean pot that Chris had just bought for me was split down the middle and there were half-cooked white beans everywhere. They were all over the stove top. They were on the floor. They were running down the front of the oven door. And worst of all, they were all over the front burner and starting to do just that-burn! And they were inside and under the burners, too. And…there was molasses in the beans. It was sticky and it burnt.

Well, I cleaned up my mess, trudged back down to the Sur La Table store and bought another ceramic bean pot. This time I decided I would leave it in the oven until hell froze over, if I had to, or, until the beans were done.

It was springtime in Seattle and the sun was making one of its rare appearances. Instead of fretting, I decided to take a nap while my beans cooked. So I opened the balcony door in my bedroom, stretched out on my bed and slept. I slept for several hours and I woke up to the most wonderful aroma. “Man,” I thought, “My neighbor is cooking something that smells really good!” As I got up and headed down the stairs that heavenly aroma increased as I neared the kitchen, and I knew, I knew! That smell was my beans.

I grabbed a couple of oven mitts, pulled the pot out, and took off the little lid. The beans were simmering away and they looked as good as they smelled. They tasted even better.

Shortly after that, Chris got his baked beans and then I gave my new pot the ultimate test. Red beans, I would cook red beans. So I washed and sorted a pound of pintos, cubed a slab of salt pork, chopped an onion and put everything in the bean pot along with water to cover, salt, pepper, and some powdered habanero. Well, it worked. I did not have to soak my beans, I did not have to bring my beans to a boil then wait one hour and wash them again…I just had to make sure to add water if the beans came uncovered and I had to have the patience to wait two hours, three hours, maybe even more. Then I consistently got the best beans I have ever had. The pot liquor was indescribable!

If I wanted tomatoes, I added them after the beans were done. And, like any good Texan, occasionally, when the mood hit me, instead of pintos, I cooked up some black-eyed peas. And they were wonderful too and didn’t take nearly as much time. Oh, and after the beans were done, I cooked up some corn bread in my iron skillet in the oven, too.

Now, eleven years later, I still bake beans, but I use stock and water, and I have fallen in love with heirloom beans. Anasazi-like pintos but richer; Red Appaloosas-smaller, and pretty like their name, and maybe the best beans I’ve ever had, and a whole slew of other heirlooms, some of them ancestors to the pinto, some not. Oh, I still cook up a pot of pintos every now and then, it is my heritage, but there are more good beans out there today than I have time to try.

“Beans are highly nutritious and satisfying, they can also be delicious if and when properly prepared, and they possess over all vegetables the great advantage of being just as good, if not better, when kept waiting, an advantage in the case of people whose disposition or occupation makes it difficult for them to be punctual at mealtime.” Andre Simon (1877-1970) The Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy (1952)

Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.” Aesop

Find good heirloom beans at www.ranchogordo.com

I think these are coffee beans, and no matter how long you cook them they’ll always be tough. Did John Woo direct this?

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