In praise of beans?

Last month I read Meghan McCaron’s article “Cool Beans,” about this most humble of ingredients and how it has slid comfortingly into our food scene, and was a mixture of transfixed and scornful. On one hand, there was the image of the author sitting on the floor, being nourished by a simple but enticing dish, so appealing-sounding I was willing to forgive its hipster overtones: “Brothy and luscious in a shallow ceramic bowl, served with oven-fresh focaccia and a zingy glass of natural white wine.” Although the scene takes place in a friend’s apartment, I imagined one of those adobe tile floors that seem to exude warmth and hominess, and maybe there were also small potted olive trees set around, and that’s it, for the rest of the winter I wanted to be in Tuscany eating beans. On the other, there was the cynic in my brain sneering and saying “really? Beans? What’s special about beans?”

McCaron goes on to point out that beans have swum slowly into our consciousness in recent years, but they have never been fully absent: as a species, we have been using them in one form or another for centuries, fresh or dried, as vegetable, as starch, as protein. And now, in the era of heirloom seeds, of the Insta-pot, of ever growing awareness about the environmental costs of meat, beans are… well, cool.

For me, as deeply as I sank into the article’s imagery, beans had never struck me as cool or as particularly delicious. I mean, sure, I love a good dal, and a pot of baked beans threaded with molasses is hard to say no to, and there is something appealing about a creamy cannellini or the perfect hummus, so smooth it feels unreal, like the one at Shawarma King in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that I had back in 2010 or so but still think about… oh. So I did have deep attachment to the unassuming bean after all.

And then I thought of two more bean dishes I’ve eaten. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were transporting, but they brought me miles closer to McCaron’s assessment. In our first year in Los Angeles, while N. still worked at an independent school, one of the students who attended happened to be the son of a restaurateur with an establishment in Culver City (and grandson of a certain spaceship captain in a galaxy far, far away). For a teacher appreciation event, the restaurant provided takeaway dinners, and N. brought home two. In my memory, he didn’t eat his, but upon delivery then went back out to some other school-related obligation. I stayed home and ate the proffered dinner: fried chicken, which I was tremendously excited about, and a small scoop of what turned out to be black or beluga lentils sitting on some frisee.

Beluga lentils are small, intensely black, and shiny, like little beads or beetles, and they, like French green lentils or lentils de puy, retain some texture when cooked, so they are often used in salad preparations. These were glistening and still just warm, and when I dug in a tentative fork I couldn’t believe how flavorful they were. Nothing I had ever done with beans had been so delicious and so simple. Of course, the only things I’d really ever done with beans, besides grind them into falafel, involved opening and draining a can.

My other mind-expanding bean dish was just last year, during a birthday dinner at local chef David LeFevre’s second Manhattan Beach spot: a little (and I mean little) oyster bar slash seafood restaurant just down the block from his better-known Manhattan Beach Post. Everything we ate I wanted more of, but the surprise star that evening was not the fish; it was the unassuming accompaniment on N’s plate: an almost risotto-textured scoop of corn and white beans advertised on the menu as flageolets, providing a warm base for a nice chunk of roasted halibut. Yeah, the fish was good. But those beans! With that sweet summer corn! There was a meatiness and a creaminess about them, and again, an intensity of flavor I didn’t expect.

I had to have more. As September stretched into October, my own bean harvest – from a prolific set of pole bean vines in my backyard – got out of control. Once standard green bean pods start to bulge from the expanding seeds inside, they just aren’t pleasant blanched or steamed anymore: the seeds are starchy and the pods are fibrous and hard to get through. On the contrary, flageolets are immature shell beans, meaning they haven’t yet matured fully into the bean that will be canned or dried and wind up on shelves as kidney beans, navy beans, and a host of others. It turns out overripe green beans make a suitable substitute for flageolets. I stripped them down, simmered them in broth with thyme and garlic and pepper, which they drank and drank and drank, added corn and a gulp of cream, gleefully measuring nothing. We slurped them down, and though I don’t think they quite qualify as “brothy and luscious,” we had them again only a few weeks later.

So I guess I’m on board for the bean love after all. I haven’t put myself in line for a Rancho Gordo subscription yet, but I will admit to saving some of my pole beans that were just too mature and dried out for my bean and corn recreation in hopes of replanting. And beans are finding their way onto my “want to make” list more and more frequently. In particular, I’m still savoring the leftovers of a lentil and goat cheese dish I made from an old (2005) issue of Bon Appetit. It’s been reproduced here; we had ours with black lentils instead of green, and I wilted the spinach into the whole mess and then served it scooped in big spoonfuls on toasted olive ciabatta. And though I haven’t made it yet, I’m all about adding Alison Roman’s shelf-emptying spicy white bean soup with broccoli rabe to my meal plan.

What is your stance on this staple? Are you aboard the bean boat? Are you a legume lover, no holds barred, or are they more of a labor of love for you, or just plain old labor? Let’s discuss, let’s share knowledge and complaints and, if you like, recipes too. Let’s talk beans.

“slow food”

There is beauty in slowness. I recently ran across the argument that we (as Americans, in particular) don’t value times of slowness and times of do-nothing-ness because they are times lacking in productivity, and for us, lack of productivity = lack of worth. So because I am not actively producing something when I curl in my favorite chair or “succumb” to the feeling of not wanting to read an article or compose a post or imagine a dish, I am being “lazy” or “wasting” my time.

But immediacy, and busyness, and the constant need to be doing something “worthwhile” can be damaging. I have to remind myself of that, especially as I hold in my consciousness the truth that I haven’t posted here in over a month, and mentally wring my hands that I haven’t been motivated to get in the kitchen and photograph my doings or try to imagine a dish that doesn’t already exist in 25 easier, quicker, and cleverer versions than the one I’m just beginning to consider.

This mental wringing has led to two possible “projects” for 2020, both of which I initially leapt upon with great enthusiasm. Yes. This was it. And then, as the first week of the month and then the second passed, and I started to consider grocery lists and recipe structures as well as planning my own scholarship and a sudden spate of meetings and a few necessary jobs on the house and a possible family visit and a handful of get-togethers with friends, they fizzled. And that’s okay.

So I have to remind myself, as I watch another week go by and get yet another (five or six at least) notification(s) from various social media connections to this blog that it’s been a while since I last posted, that slow is okay. Not posting is okay. It’s okay, in a labor of love that this blog is intended to be, if I don’t toss something up there just for the sake of posting. It’s okay to let things mull and slosh around in my brain for a while, deciding what comes next. This is an especially good reminder given the other kind of writing I’m sinking into this month, which is entirely academic: it’s okay if it unrolls slowly.

These truths together – that doing “nothing” is okay, and that slow does not mean lazy – help me see that, at least for a little while, I may need to change directions here, in this little space. This has been for a long time a recipe blog. It has been a place I use to show you what I am cooking in words and in images and provide you with the capability, through a recipe that is usually carefully planned but sometimes, I’ll admit with only a glimmer of shame, approximated, to recreate the dish about which I must wax poetic. But this space began, back in 2008, as a replacement for an old Live Journal that was turning into a meal-planning diary. It was a place for me to talk about food: the food I was growing, the food I was cooking, the food I was consuming and what I thought about it. And that was exciting.

I think, for a little while at least, I’m going to return to that. Instead of fighting myself to create, develop, and perfect a dish that can be photographed beautifully and codified into an easy-to-follow recipe, which is how I’ve felt about this space in the last couple of months, I’m going to take a breath and just… talk about food. It’s a bit of a low-pressure refresh: slow, thought driven instead of schedule-driven, reflective and free.

Let’s see what happens.

Patatas Bravas with Chorizo Sofrito

This is a dish that plays with tradition, inspired by a place that plays with tradition. And really, as we approach a time of the year deeply steeped in traditions, I think that’s nice: to be able to play while invoking the original makes both the respected origins and the process of recreating (read like the kind of “recreation” you do during a summer vacation, not like the semi-faithful attempt at “creating again”) more fun.

Traditionally, patatas bravas are fried cubes or chunks of potato, served warm with a spicy sauce as part of a tapas spread. These are whole baby or fingerling potatoes, cooked through, smashed lightly, then pan fried until pieces of the skin go quite crunchy and small pieces that fall off get crackly in the almost-smoking oil at the bottom of the pan.

Sofrito, on the other hand… well, the thing about tradition here is that sofrito differs depending on where it’s being made. As well as Spain and Latin America, Italy, Greece, and even the Philippines have versions of this cooking base of aromatics and vegetables, long simmered into something like a ragout. This one, with red bell pepper as well as onion and garlic and some crumbles of chorizo, probably most closely resembles the Cuban iteration.

The dish I’m recreating here was served to me years ago as an appetizer at Father’s Office, a Westside gastropub staple and home not only of the divisive Office Burger, but of the delightfully draconian “no substitutions, no ketchup” policy (which I for one appreciate, though understand others’ objections to). Instead of the controversial burger, N. and I ordered a few small plates to share and couldn’t get over these potatoes, which arrived in a golden heap, their skins wrinkled in a way that can only be achieved by deep frying, smothered in a rich, spicy sofrito that, forgive me, was not exactly like a thick chili, but is the best way I can describe the sauce if you’ve never had it. On top of that, a generous crumble of goat cheese and some cilantro sprigs, and the same night I was looking up the history and variations of the component parts so I could recreate it.

It’s funny, then, that I forgot about it, and it only resurfaced when N. suggested it for dinner last week. Even funnier, given that we exclaimed our enjoyment through the whole meal, that I could have gone half a year or more at a time without thinking about it. I hope, after you dig in, that doesn’t happen to you.

Patatas Bravas with Chorizo Sofrito
Serves 4 as a main or 6-8 as an appetizer
45-60 minutes
8-10 ounces pork chorizo, casing removed
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 large onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, minced
optional: 1 jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed if you wish, minced
1 TB tomato paste
2 pounds fingerling or other baby potatoes
salted water to boil
4 TB olive oil or vegetable oil
5-6 ounces crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup chopped cilantro

 

  • To make the chorizo sofrito, cook down the chorizo in a large skillet over medium heat until it is almost cooked through, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or flat edged wooden spatula.
  • Add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, and jalapeño if using. Sprinkle over the cumin seeds and paprika and stir to integrate. Cook over medium low or low heat until the vegetables are very soft and almost homogeneous: 30-40 minutes. You are looking for something like a thick ragout. Taste for salt and spice and adjust as needed.
  • While the vegetables are sweating and melting, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the potatoes. Cook until potatoes are tender. Drain and set aside until they are just cool enough to handle, then use a potato masher, the heel of your hand, or another flat tool to crush the potatoes lightly.
  • Dry out the pot you used to boil the potatoes and heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat until shimmering. Add potatoes in a single layer (this will require multiple batches). Salt very lightly and cook over medium high heat until they are toasty brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and repeat. Remove from the pot and repeat the browning process with the remaining potatoes, adding more oil as needed.
  • To serve, pile up some of the potatoes in a shallow bowl. Ladle on a generous helping of the sofrito, then crumble over a few ounces of goat cheese and a good sprinkle of chopped cilantro.

Manhattan Beach Post’s Bacon Cheddar Biscuits (no recipe)

If you live near me, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, I hope you have been to Manhattan Beach Post. Headed by Chef David LeFevre (notable a few years ago on food TV for falling one unfortunate battle short of being crowned the newest Iron Chef), it’s an upscale-but-casual spot near the beach, with inventive small plates designed to be shared. You and your dining partner order maybe 3 or 4 things, and they are served as they are ready, which means you might get your fish “main” before you get your pan fried spicy green beans, but that’s okay. It adds to the ability to play with flavor combinations as each new plate arrives at your table. Plus then you have more time to examine the cocktail list to see what to order next…

One of the highlights at MBP comes in the form of their bacon cheddar biscuits. Studded with chunks of cheese that ooze out into crisp, lacy patterns as they bake, they are served still steaming with a small pot of whipped, lightly salted maple butter. People order them by the dozens.

Since, given my penchant for wanting everything, MBP gets a little pricey for a weekly visit, the stretches in between those biscuits get to feeling long. I’m no amateur with biscuits myself, given that a quick word search on this very site turns up no less than eight successful variations and one small disaster, but MBP’s are achingly tender and flavorful and rich in ways mine fall slightly short of. They also have that inimitable quality of being made by someone else, which so often raises the deliciousness quotient a few notches.

I’d certainly be willing, though, given their place in my taste memories, to make them myself, so you can imagine my delight when a week or so ago I found this recipe for the very thing. Naturally this went immediately to the top of my “to make” list, only to be foiled by a series of “there’s no way we’re turning on the oven, nope, not a chance” days in a row.

But a week after the initial find, we had a cooler afternoon, and I collected myself, halved the recipe, and produced a tray of tender, lightly browned blobs oozing with cheese that we gobbled up alongside a salad to pretend we were being responsible. And then three days later we made them for breakfast, sans chives, cheddar, and bacon, splitting them gently and spreading them thickly with maple butter. And I have to say, both times they were just perfect: light, fluffy, tangy from buttermilk, just barely edging toward sweet and salty, and something I’d always be happy to have a half dozen of in the freezer, just for spur-of-the-moment biscuit cravings (what, you don’t have those?).

 

A few notes: I subbed out bacon for pancetta in my savory version because, for a weeknight, I couldn’t pass up the convenience factor of the pre-cubed packet I had only to shake into a frying pan. The dough itself, if you can call it that, just barely holds together, but try to resist the urge to add more liquid, which turns it into a sticky mess almost immediately. As with scones and other such beasties, the key is to mix and knead as little as possible to preserve tenderness; I didn’t even mess with my rolling pin, but just patted the mess into something like a rectangle with lightly floured hands, then sliced the whole thing into squares with a knife instead of bothering with a biscuit cutter. And don’t pass up the brush of butter and sea salt on the top (LeFevre calls for clarified butter; I just used my regular unsalted, melting a little in the warmth of the preheating oven). It promotes browning nicely and offers a little extra decadence, and the crunchy flakes of sea salt are a delight.

Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.

Squash soup (no recipe)

I had such intentions of hopping back on the horse and being seasonal and bringing you something appropriately pumpkin-ed, and then an impromptu afternoon outing turned into dinner with friends, (involving, it’s worth noting, easily the best Caesar dressing I’ve ever made, slightly over-salted croutons, and the complete destruction of my microplane grater. My first reaction was, “what a cheap thing! Who gave us this for our wedding anyway…. Oh. Twelve years ago. I guess that’s fair) and suddenly mixing, baking, slicing, baking again (three guesses about what I intended?!) seemed much less important.

So instead I want to talk about soup. But to get there, first I have to talk about A. Two weekends ago, N. and I went to the wedding of one of our grad school friends, an amazing woman we’ve remained quite close to despite only sharing two academic years with her. She came back to Oregon for our graduation, she roomed with us at a wedding only now taking a cautious, slight backseat to hers, she sees N. almost every year at a conference I know has become his favorite in part because he gets to see her (among other amazing friends and scholars). There aren’t many people I would fly to Texas for and party like a college student in the middle of the semester, but she’s one of them. And her new husband is pretty great too.

The wedding dinner was entirely vegetarian, which is a hard sell in the middle of Texas. But her caterers pulled it off well, and the easy star of the whole shebang was the squash soup. I’ve had – and made – plenty of squash-based soups, and I am (almost) always slightly disappointed by them. They are so often either a barely thinned puree, one-note and overwhelmed by butternut, or so diluted by broth or cream they don’t taste of much at all. Even my own most recent take, which was tasty, left something to be desired.

This one, though, was outrageously delicious. I don’t know what sort of squash they used – whether it was summer, winter, or both – but it was creamy without being overwhelming, and bright and interesting enough to hold my interest for the entire bowl. It didn’t need any garnishes, it didn’t split or get greasy as it cooled, and had I been less invested in getting on with the dancing, I could easily have gone back for seconds. I’ve already put in a request to the catering company to share, if not the recipe, perhaps an ingredient secret or two.

So to close, since I’ve got soup on the brain, what’s the best squash-based soup you’ve ever had? Did you make it, or did someone else? What made it amazing? Tell me everything…