I’ve never been poor, but I’ve certainly been broke. And like a lot of people of some privilege who find themselves having an economically challenged few years, I attacked the situation, finding satisfaction and even joy in efficiencies, cost savings, and budget living. Some people take toilet paper from public bathrooms or memorize a schedule of museum free days. For me, it was beans.
I was starting to get serious about cooking at that same time in my life, and learning to make meals that cost less than $2 worth of ingredients per person felt powerful. Dried beans were a no-brainer. When I had been a vegetarian for several years of my childhood, my dad had regaled me with stories of subsisting on beans and rice in college. He even bought a stovetop pressure cooker to make them for his vegetarian daughters. I was unimpressed.
But fast forward to my early twenties, and a bag cost the same as a can of prepared beans but offered about six times as many servings. All I had to do was make them taste good.
I started with chickpeas, cooked with equal parts store-bought stock and water, a smoked turkey neck (bear with me, I’ve moved away from this), and a bay leaf. Pretty good. Next up, baked beans with navy beans and too much molasses. Bad.
I felt like Martha Stewart going through a Bohemian phase, earthy and efficient, serene and competent.
I’m usually not methodical in my cooking, but I found myself making a practice of trying different dried beans and different cooking methods: soaking versus not soaking, slow cooker versus stove top versus oven, different aromatics, different cooking liquids. This was low-risk cooking. The ingredients were cheap, and even the worst results could be made into a spicy chili or pureed into soup, so there was never any real loss.
Can you think of anything so satisfying as leaving a pot filled with less than $5 worth of ingredients alone for hours and then coming back to a week’s worth of food? I felt like Martha Stewart going through a Bohemian phase, earthy and efficient, serene and competent.
When I moved to the suburbs to take a job at Fine Cooking magazine, I suddenly had more disposable income, so I didn’t need beans the way I had before. But at the same time, I was honing my palate and learning a lot more about how to make things good. I developed a reputation at tastings for giving a little sniff and saying “These beans are canned,” no matter how flavorful the ingredients around them were.
Like a lot of people who spend time learning, reading, and talking about cooking, I was also starting to think more than I ever had about food systems. Pulses became something of a battle cry for me. Pulses, with their ability to break down nitrogen in the air and turn it into nutrients for the soil, will save the planet. I had always felt that I was doing Something Good cooking beans — turns out, I was right.
I had also hit on a formula that made them taste really good.
And it was vegan.
I replaced the smokiness and savoriness of a turkey neck with tomato paste and smoked paprika. Letting onions and garlic brown a bit also deepens the flavor. Sumac’s tang and bay leaf’s light menthol quality cut the earthiness, and adding a dried chile is just tasty.
This flavor profile and method works for any bean, lentil, or dried pea, and the cooked product works in a staggering variety of dishes. It’s neutral without being boring, and it’s infinitely variable. Add a few more chile peppers and some cumin, and you’re on your way to some killer chili. Throw in some dried mushrooms to up the savory, earthy notes. A hearty glug of wine or beer dregs won’t hurt anything, nor will cutting up the onion and caramelizing it before you get going, or replacing the tomato paste with harissa.
If I’ve got a pot of beans going, I can sit on my couch an entire Sunday long feeling good about doing something. The unpredictability of their cook time becomes a meditation on my inability to plan and control everything.
What’s funny is that, even having cracked this recipe, even without the experimentation aspect and the newness of it, I still feel excited and virtuous making a pot of beans on the weekend. And my pursuit of beans has led me to Rancho Gordo and Anson Mills field peas — producers who care about the planet and their employees. A $6 or even $10 pound of dried beans is still more protein per cent than any other food product.
And now, beans serve another purpose in my life. I have a hard time sitting still. The pressure to produce (self-imposed, of course) hangs heavy over me when I try to relax. If I’ve got a pot of beans going, I can sit on my couch an entire Sunday long feeling good about doing something. The unpredictability of their cook time becomes a meditation on my inability to plan and control everything. Every bite is a little celebration of efficiency, eating without hurting any living being, fiber, protein, replenished soil, and good flavor. In that moment, I have won.
- Four cups boiling water
- One tablespoon olive oil
- ½ large yellow onion, peeled, stem trimmed
- ½ head garlic, peeled and smashed
- One tablespoon tomato paste
- Eight ounces of dried beans
- Two teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon sumac
- One bay leaf
- One mild dried chili, such as guajillo
- Put water on to boil.
- In Dutch oven, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and brown on all sides. Add garlic and brown.
- Lower heat to low, and add tomato paste. Stir to break up, then add beans and stir to coat with oil and tomato paste. Add salt, paprika and sumac, and stir to coat.
- Pour water in and lower heat to achieve simmer (you might have to turn it off for a couple of minutes). Add bay leaf and chile, and cover. Cook, checking doneness every hour (of 15 minutes, if cooking lentils), until beans are tender. If you’d like less or thicker pot liquor, remove lid for the last hour of cooking.