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 lighted on Page 129 of “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.
My guest liked Pierre Koffmann’s grandmother’s cooking a great deal.
A turnaround begins
So did I, so much so that I had to question my lifelong hate-affair with beans. In the first stage of what can now only 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, Jeremy 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.
To close his by now thoroughly supercilious bean rhapsody, Jeremy did that impossibly foodie thing. He 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, and 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 Jeremy, the rage in the United Kingdom is for a huge Spanish-grown white bean with a mildly nutty flavor called the Judion. Jeremy 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, it seems, 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, the next surprise was that, whatever you called them, the same beans of the same size can cook differently. Jeremy gave a cooking time of an hour and a half for his Judions. Five and a half hours later, the Test Kitchen’s Coronas were finally done.
We had used old beans. They may have grown senile on a gourmet shop shelf in Los Angeles, but there was no telling their age when shopping. No picking date was given. Jeremy’s Judions, it emerged, were grown in such small quantities that they never get a chance to age more than a year.
So, in our next attempt, we tried the same recipe with California-grown Gigandes. This time, Jeremy’s recipe not only worked, it worked in an hour and a half, exactly the time given for Judion. What had been acceptable with the long-cooked Corona was now sensational with the local Gigandes: savory, complex and tender. Where the Corona skins were leathery, the Gigandes skins were silky and delicate. The cooking liquor was just as he promised it: fragrant from the sage and thyme, then enriched toward the end of cooking by the sweetening addition of a carrot, leek and onion mirepoix. Above all there was the sweet, nutty flavor of this fabulous bean.
The moral was: 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.
To explore the local supply of young, tender beans, I went to the Web site of Phipps Country Store and Farm in Pescadero, near Santa Cruz. Here 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.
Speckled versus spotted
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 can still bring a fillip. Because they are usually grown in small quantities and come relatively young, they 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 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 already happening. Consumption has increased in the last 20 years from less 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. Others, he adds, are turning to beans in the quest of a low-fat diet.
Hmm. Not me. For me, it was a Frenchman’s grandmother and her 4 ounces of duck fat that threw the door open one New Year’s to the wonderful world of beans.