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Beans: They're easier to love when they're cooked correctly

| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2003

I've always hated beans. Black beans, cranberry beans, kidney beans and, most especially, lima beans. I didn't care that beans were, arguably, the world's most important food crop. I hated them anyway, right up until one dark and windy night about a month ago.

A succession of rainstorms were predicted for Los Angeles. I was expecting a house guest who, given the weather and airline schedules, might be late by hours, or days. What to have on the stove• Nothing seemed quite right, not roasts, not braises, certainly not grills.

Flipping through my most trusted cookbooks, I found "Memories of Gascony," the unutterably wistful 1990 book about the cooking of the grandmother of the great French chef Pierre Koffmann. There was the perfect dish: "Saucisses aux Haricots et Tomates," or, more plainly, sausages with beans and tomatoes. In it, what the French so pleasingly call haricots (and we call kidney beans) are soaked, par-cooked, quickly browned in duck fat with onions, herbs and garlic, then simmered until tender and slowly treated to sweeteners of carrots, an acid splash from tomatoes. In the final stage of cooking, this silken mix is finished with the addition of browned sausages.

There was no denying it. This was the perfect winter dish, in spite of the beans. I had to make it. Koffmann called for Toulouse sausages. I used Italian ones, which gave it a pleasing dash of paprika. I served it with a sharp green salad and a bottle of Chenin Blanc.

I liked it so much so that I had to question my lifelong hate-affair with beans. In the first stage of what can now be described as a complete turnaround, I decided that the problem with the bean dishes that I had encountered before Koffmann's was that they had not been prepared with 4 ounces of duck fat. I became so pleased with the notion, I put it to my friend Jeremy Lee, chef at the Blue Print Cafe in London and, typical chef, a bean-lover.

"Beans do adore fat," he conceded. They are, after all, seeds, little storehouses of protein and good starches to feed baby plants, but almost entirely bereft of fat. Even so, Lee maintained that beans could also shine without fat. What they could not forgive, he argued, was bad handling or bad cooking.

His wonder was reserved for how miraculously beans married the astringent perfume of sage with the sweet onion bass notes of garlic, he said. Note the steam, he suggested, next time a pot of beans simmers with nothing more than a bouquet garni and garlic. Try it without the fleshy salt notes of the pork knuckle or smoky hit from bacon. Just simmer beans and bay leaves, thyme, sage and garlic, he said. The house will never smell sweeter.

Then Lee played the variety card. There was a big bean-rich world out there. I should explore it, he suggested disdainfully, my being a bean's jump from the birthplace of the seeds: South America.

That was it. I rang U.S. Department of Agriculture plant geneticist George Hosfield, an adjunct professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He confirmed that the vast Phaseolus family behind the dozens of so dried beans that most of us have encountered in our eating lives and the thousands of others that most of us haven't all originated in South and Central America. Centuries ago, Portuguese and Spanish traders found yellow beans, green beans, red beans, brown beans, black beans, along with speckled, spotted, striped and dotted beans.

We in the United States inherited a comparatively limited spectrum two ways: Native Americans spread them north through the Southwest, and European settlers brought them from Europe, planting them east to west. Confusingly, we call less popular varieties of both types "heirloom," so, in bean-speak, beans with Indian names, such as appaloosa, yellow-eyed woman or Zuni beans, are just as heirloom as a Jackson wonder or a green flageolet.

There is one basic distinction. Europeans preferred the white beans: haricots, fava and navy beans. Today, as trendy European chefs look for new beans, the quest for novelty still largely takes place within the white-bean school. According to Lee, the rage in the United Kingdom is for a huge Spanish-grown white bean with a mildly nutty flavor called the Judion. Lee pays $10 a pound for them and puts them in a soup with a garlicky, buttered parsley sauce. As he described it, I began to salivate: what a delicious prelude to a leg of new season lamb.

But the quest to find Judions led straight into a nomenclature minefield. After trekking around town to the usual gourmet shops, the first probable equivalent that I found was a vacuum-packed Italian import called Corona. They were big, white and certainly kissing cousins when it came to price: $7 a pound. Then a friend said, no, they weren't Coronas, or Judion, they were Haricots d'Espagne. No, said another friend, they were runner beans.

It took Shree Singh, a professor of plant breeding with the University of Idaho, and a man described by colleagues at the USDA as "a world top person" on beans to settle the matter. Singh wagered that they were all the same, or related beans, properly called Phaseolus coccineus.

The infinite variety of beans, each with dozens of different common names, made keeping track of them "mind-boggling," he said. The world top person recommended that we do as the bean industry does: "Look at the size."

Beans are classed in three sizes, small, medium and large. Common names often reflect this. Judion, it turns out, means nothing more than "big bean." Gigandes, same thing. But back in the kitchen, whatever you call them, the same beans of the same size can cook differently, depending on age.

The moral: Dried beans should be bought and cooked, not bought and stored. It helps, said Hosfield, to think of them as seeds that reach peaks of moisture on the vine, but which start drying in the field, and keep drying on our shelves. The older they become, the longer they take to cook.

At the Phipps Country Store and Farm in Pescadero, near Santa Cruz, Calif., one can order from more than 60 types of beans grown by Tom Phipps. Phipps sent us such fabulously colored beans that it was tempting to tile a table with them instead of cook them.

But how to keep the speckled distinct from the merely spotted, the yellow from the gold• Don't try, advised Singh and Hosfield. Of 30 species native to the Americas, one species alone might have 25,000 different types. Color is not always related to taste: About a dozen different genes that control color can fire off willy-nilly every time a bean flower is pollinated. The way beans look can vary on the same plant. And even identical beans can have different names not just country to country, but village to village and farmer to farmer.

Unhappily, much of the color fades in the pot.

But bright beans, because they are usually grown in small quantities and come relatively young, often do not require pre-soaking, or discarding of water from pre-boiling. So the antioxidants associated with the color will remain in the finished dish. How many antioxidants• "About the same as from a glass of wine," estimates Hosfield.

By now it was obvious. I didn't hate beans. I merely hated old, badly cooked dried beans.

Paso Robles, Calif., grower Barbara Spencer thinks that her beans age in two stages, losing their first phase of freshness after six months, then becoming notably tougher in two years. She puts public appreciation of beans "where potatoes were 20 years ago" when they were eaten two ways, baked or boiled, with sour cream or butter, but poised for a huge change.

From Idaho, world top bean expert Singh says change is happening. Consumption has increased in the last 20 years from fewer than 5 pounds per American per year to more like 8. He points to the growing influence of Latin Americans, the most experienced and confident bean cooks, in improving the repertoire. Some people, he adds, are turning to beans in the quest of a low-fat diet.

Phipps Country Store and Farm sells beans by mail order: 2700 Pescadero Road, Pescadero, CA 94060; 650-879-0787; www.phippscountry.com .


Beans With Sausages And Tomatoes

This recipe is adapted from Pierre Koffmann's 1990 book, "Memories of Gascony." Duck fat is sold frozen at specialty markets. For a bouquet garni, knot 3 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig rosemary, 2 sage leaves and 4 sprigs parsley in cheesecloth.

  • 1 pound, 2 ounces dried kidney or Taylor beans, about 3 cups
  • 4 ounces duck fat
  • 4 large spicy pork sausages
  • 1/4 pound smoked bacon
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • Bouquet garni
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered, or 1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, drained
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Place the beans in a bowl; cover by 3 inches with cold water. Soak 8 hours. Drain. Cook in boiling water 30 minutes, then drain.

In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the fat over medium-high heat. Fry the sausages until browned. Remove from the pan, reduce heat to medium and add the onion. Cook until golden, 5 minutes. Add the bacon, beans, bouquet garni, garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Add cold water to cover. Cook uncovered, 11/2 hours. Check the seasoning. Add the carrots and tomatoes. Cook 30 minutes, then set sausages on top, check seasoning, and cook until the water is just under the beans and thick, 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 485 calories, 1,501 milligrams sodium, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 35 grams fat, 13 grams saturated fat, 23 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 5.81 grams fiber.

Total time: 31/2 hours, plus 8 hours soaking.


Giant White Bean Soup

This recipe is from Jeremy Lee of the Blue Print Cafe in London. For a bouquet garni, knot 2 bay leaves, 2 sprigs thyme, 2 sage leaves, 4 sprigs parsley and 1 dried red chile in cheesecloth.

  • 1 pound dried "gigandes" or Italian Corona beans
  • Bouquet garni
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1/2 leek
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

Place the beans in a bowl and cover by 3 inches with cold water. Soak 12 to 14 hours. Drain. Place the beans in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover by 2 inches with water. Add the bouquet garni and garlic, and bring to boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Toward the end of cooking, finely chop the onion, carrot and leek. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the vegetables and cook until the onions turn golden, 5 minutes.

Remove the bouquet garni, add the onion, carrot and leek. Simmer until the beans are very tender, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain off 3/4 (about 2 cups) of the liquid and reduce in a saucepan over medium heat until it reaches a medium-thick consistency, 5 minutes. Return the liquid to the beans, toss and add the parsley sauce. Toss and serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings. Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, plus 12 hours soaking.


Habanero Bean Salad

  • 1 pound mixed small dried beans
  • 1 small yellow onion, unpeeled
  • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 2 "pasilla" chilies
  • 2 habanero chilies
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 1 cup fresh tangerine juice
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Salt, pepper

Place the beans, yellow onion and garlic in a large saucepan; add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the beans are tender but still firm, 11/2 hours.

Meanwhile, place the chilies and pepper 6 inches beneath the broiler, turning once or twice, 15 minutes for the pasillas and red pepper and 8 minutes for habaneros. Peel and chop. Place in a bowl with the tomatoes and red onion.

Reduce the tangerine juice in a small saucepan over medium heat to 1/2 cup, 15 minutes. Let cool. Whisk in the vinegar, lime juice and oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain the beans; discard the onion and garlic. Let the beans cool slightly, then add to the chile mixture and toss with the dressing while still warm.

Makes 8-10 servings.

Per serving: 98 calories, 209 milligrams sodium, 0 cholesterol, 2 grams fat, 0 saturated fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 3.70 grams fiber.

Total time: 2 hours.

Bean rules


Soak, don't soak. Salt, don't salt. There are as many rules about cooking beans as there are types of beans. Here are rules for the rules.

Soaking: Most cookery writers insist on it, although a new school dismisses the practice as witchcraft. In fact, the usefulness of it is dictated by the variety, age and size of the bean. Dried beans are soaked to rehydrate them to the point of peak freshness, before they began to dry on the vine. With older, drier, or larger beans, soaking can cut down on cooking time significantly. For small, recently harvested dried beans, it can be foregone.

Boiling: Bringing beans to a boil at the beginning of cooking is important to cook certain proteins, but keeping them at a boil will split and toughen the skins. After they reach a boil, heat should be reduced and the beans cooked at a slow burble.

Salting: Conventional wisdom dictates that dried beans should be salted only toward the end of cooking, because the salt draws moisture from the bean, producing an unpleasantly dry texture. But exhaustive tests done by Los Angeles Times food columnist Russ Parsons showed that beans cooked with a teaspoon of salt per pound compared to beans cooked without salt cooked to exactly the same degree of softness in almost exactly the same time. Moreover, the beans salted during cooking required half as much salt.

Digestibility: The best way to ensure that a bean dish is easily digestible is to cook it thoroughly. Undercooked beans will cause indigestion. Properly cooked ones shouldn't. But products such as Beano, for people who have trouble, introduce an enzyme that helps break down stubborn starches and sugars in the beans.

-- Los Angeles TImes

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