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.

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