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.

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.

#zucchinidaysofsummer

Afraid I don’t have a recipe for you today – between returning from one trip, prepping for another, and the general distressing state of The News, I haven’t produced anything I felt confident sharing with you. You can see from my hashtag title here, though, what I’ve been up to. If you follow me on Instagram (or if you’ve checked out the little Igram photo further down the page recently), you’ll have seen that I’m aiding and abetting perhaps the most prolific zucchini plant I’ve ever encountered. From its rooted stem to the tips of its highest leaves it probably stands four and a half feet tall, and the dark green, curved baseball bats I’ve been snapping off the thing are both awe inspiring and distressing, since I’m running out of ideas to use them up. These aren’t zucchini anymore; they’re proper marrows. Look out neighbors… I’m almost to the point of leaving “gifts” on your doorsteps in the dead of night.

Since I don’t have a real post to share with you, I thought instead I’d tell you a few of the ways I’ve been working through my harvest. In addition to last week’s zucchini bread, I’ve dabbled in a goat cheese and zucchini tart, a triumphant ratatouille adapted from Thomas Keller’s confit byaldi, and a shower of thin slivers added to fajita vegetables. Tonight I’m planning what I hope will be a triumphant stuffed endeavor: ground lamb studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, preserved lemon, plenty of dill, and some feta. Maybe a few garbanzo beans. Certainly an avalanche of bread crumbs to keep N. happy. I’ll hollow the central line of seeds out from one of the larger specimens and fill with my mixture, then roast until the crumbs are golden and the squash itself has softened.

Future ideas include breaded and fried slices, either crunched as an extravagant appetizer or stacked a la eggplant parmesan, replacements for lasagna noodles in a lighter, summery version of the baked pasta, and the ever popular “zoodles” with the spiralizer tool I keep forgetting I own. A friend is tracking down her mother’s old recipe for zucchini pickles, and I’m considering adding shreds to bread pudding, since the shelves of my freezer not weighed down with loaves of zucchini bread are filling up with sourdough crusts from our everyday loaves.

In the midst of all this, I have a tricky Chopped Challenge entree “basket” to deal with, which I hope I’ll have developments to report on soon…

What do you like to do with zucchini? What else should I try with my massive harvest? Leave me a comment, if you’re so inclined, and help me devour these monsters.

Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.

The Adele – limoncello spritzer

Hi friends. Remember me? I promise I haven’t forgotten about us. I’ve just been… busy.

A week or two ago N. and I were talking about explanations our students give for their absences, or for requesting extensions, or for missed work, and it led into a discussion of the difference between reasons and excuses (which dovetailed into me raging against one of the judges on the Food Network show Chopped for calling a contestant’s explanation that the plate she wanted to use had been taken by someone else an “excuse” he didn’t want to hear). We decided it was, in some senses, a matter of semantics, and that in many cases it was too bad that “excuse” has taken on such a negative connotation. In thinking about how I’ve effectively abandoned you here, I do have some reasons for my absence, but I’m now approaching the point where they are fast becoming excuses, in all the negative ways we usually think of the word. I moved. (True, but we unpacked the kitchen and the computer with my photo editing software almost two weeks ago.) It’s hot. (Yeah, but it wasn’t last weekend or the weekend before that.) I’m tired. (Not so tired that I can’t teach, and grade, and whip up dinner, but tired enough that staging ingredients and capturing the right angles feels like a pretty steep mountain to scale around 4:30 in the afternoon.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because what’s important is getting back to it and making an appearance, right? So here’s mine. In the steaming slick of the weekend, peeking around the ragged corners of my own laziness reluctance summer schedule, I figured I could manage a cocktail.

This drink is in honor of my now former neighbor, the “now former” part of which saddens me greatly. Before the move, we were in the habit of having monthly happy hours with one set of neighbors, taking turns hosting an evening of snacks and drinks and music and conversation. It was a lovely way to end the week, and a great excuse reason to resupply the cheese drawer. A former bartender, A. always impressed me with her imaginative cocktail ideas (and got me hooked on vodka tonics – how did it take me until my mid-thirties to discover this dangerously refreshing option every single bartender in the country knows how to make?). It was always a different drink, always something slightly unusual (amaretto and almond milk, anyone?), and she always had the ingredients for it chilled and waiting. For our final happy hour as neighbors, despite not having a great deal of time to plan (packing – you know how it goes), I wanted to have something special to offer her, and it turned out to be this, a drink she liked so much I decided to make it again, and again, and name it after her.

Apart from our neighbors, the other thing I’m going to miss about the house we no longer live in is the lemon tree in the backyard. It wasn’t a standard Eureka or Lisbon lemon (the varieties most common in the standard U.S. grocery store displays), but it wasn’t quite a Meyer lemon either – the skin and pith were sturdy and thick, and they grew to larger sizes than the grocery store offerings (and man were they full of seeds, a feature I’m currently taking advantage of by sprouting and growing a few of my own). The first winter we lived there, I used the tree’s bounty to make limoncello, a lovely bottle I forgot about in the back of a cupboard and allowed to steep much longer than suggested, producing something tooth-achingly sweet and far too strong to be sipped. Over the five years we lived in the house, I slowly worked on that one bottle, adding it to desserts and drinks when a boozy kick of lemon seemed right. As moving day approached, I had only a few shots left in the bottle. To enjoy the sunshine of those lemons as long as possible, the day before we left I stripped the tree of every ripe lemon I could reach (don’t worry, there were still plenty for the new tenants… assuming they have a ladder…). To my dismay, this recipe uses the very last of these.

This is no great revelation, I’m afraid (after I made you wait for it for a full page to finally find out what’s in it!), but it is a perfect, and perfectly easy, cocktail for the season. It uses the very last drops of my limoncello, the very last slices of the last lemon I brought from the old house, and a simple fizz of seltzer water to top it up. And as I sipped it this weekend in my hot, still backyard, still scattered with the detritus of the week’s airborne celebrations (fireworks leave a lot of garbage behind!), it remained a lovely way to close out the week: fresh, bright, not too sweet, just the right subtle tickle, as we plow full swing into summer.

The Adele
Makes one (but so easily multiplied)
These are my quantities of preference – you can, of course, adjust to your own tastes, making the drink stronger or weaker, more or less citrusy, as you prefer.
3-4 ice cubes
1 ounce limoncello
1-2 lemon slices or wedges
5-6 ounces seltzer water (don’t use club soda – it contains sodium)

 

  • Place the ice cubes in a red wine glass (with a big bowl and a tall stem)
  • Pour in the limoncello and add the lemon wedge or slice(s), squeezing to release juice if desired
  • Top up with seltzer water, stir gently, and enjoy.

Save