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When beans meet greens, it's an easy balancing act of flavors, textures, colors.
BENEATH a thatch of wilted dandelion greens, the Christmas lima beans spill out, earthy and enticing, their pretty speckled markings still faintly visible after a few hours in the pot. This is the brilliant architecture of a taco so tasty that it might just replace carne asada in your dreams.
And if you cook the beans ahead, it's a simple supper built with ease and grace. Saute dandelion greens or arugula in a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Then grill a stack of corn tortillas and stir together a bowl of spicy salsa verde and you have everything you need for dinner. The beans have a wonderful texture, vaguely reminiscent of classic refried beans yet with a nutty, almost meaty taste. And the greens, still faintly spicy after a few minutes in a hot pan, are redolent of the garden they've so recently left.
Greens have a certain brightness that contrasts beautifully with shell beans. The emerald leaves unfurl with possibilities, while the beans, toothsome and earthy, seem to reference the ground they both came from. Together, they create a balance -- of flavors and textures, colors and even temperatures.
As spring hits its stride, finding greens to experiment with has never been so much fun. Sure, there are the classics, such as collards and mustard greens, kale and spinach. But take a quick walk through the farmers market stands and produce aisles and you'll see small forests of delicate mache and mizuna, spicy arugula and dandelion greens. And they're tender this time of year, tied into bunches as if caught midway between an earthbound fragility and the vertical jump of mature growth.
Pair these greens, whether subtle or assertive, with some of the heirloom dried beans and legumes that are becoming increasingly available: Anasazi and Vaquero; marrow beans and scarlet runner beans; French flageolets and Italian cannellini; black Calypso and yellow-eye beans. Or homey standbys such as chickpeas, lentils and field peas.
A warm salad gets its inspiration from the Southern pairing of black-eyed peas and mustard greens but takes a distinctly California turn with the addition of baby salad greens. Cook black-eyed peas until tender (they'll require less cooking time than other beans, maybe half an hour), then toss a generous amount of spicy mustard greens in the same pot that you've cooked some bacon. The mustard greens will cook down in the bacon fat, wilting to a perfect texture.
Then in a large bowl, simply combine the black-eyed peas, wilted greens, bacon and a few handfuls of fresh mache with a quick vinaigrette. The soulful heartiness of the black-eyed peas and the bacon-laced greens play off the freshness of the mache, and the sweet acidity of the vinaigrette brings it all together.
Despite what many people (and many packaging instructions) might tell you, you do not need to soak dried beans overnight -- or even for a few hours.
Savory bean soup
Instead, cook a little mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery) in olive oil, then add a cup or more of dried beans and water to cover. Bring the contents to a boil, then cover; turn the heat to very low, and let the beans cook for about an hour and a half. Throw in some salt about halfway through the cooking process and check to see that there's still enough liquid; if not, add more. When the beans are tender, they're done.
The savory liquid that the beans generate when they cook, called pot liquor, carries different flavors depending on the beans -- marrow beans are almost buttery; Christmas limas taste faintly of chestnuts -- and these notes can get overwhelmed by the salty intensity of a ham hock or a rich meat or chicken stock. One of the subtle joys of making bean soup is that it's a brilliant way of showcasing this pot liquor, which forms much of the soup's base.
For soup, try cranberry beans (also called borlotti beans), which retain their shape and have a velvety texture. And for a classic beans and greens matchup, add not only lacinato (curly) kale to the pot but also a handful of pretty orecchiette pasta.
Reserve some cooked beans before you add the kale and puree them with a serious dose of smoked Spanish paprika. Spooned over the finished soup, the spicy puree adds a lovely smoky finish.
Any greens and beans combination needs a touch of acidity to bring it to true balance. The vinaigrette accentuates the contrasting elements of the salad, and a few squeezes of lime add a terrific dimension to the dandelion greens-lima taco, heightening the flavors more than a simple dose of citrus would seem capable of doing. A squeeze of lemon in the soup adds a final bright note that highlights the rich smokiness and the subtler nuances of flavor.
A basket of greens, a hill of beans: With two humble components, you can triangulate a meal of dreams.