Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not just rice and beans

Here's why I love cooking. Take a simple pile of dried beans and turn them into something sublime. Without a whole lot of muss or fuss.

A few months ago, I took the hint from a few of the blogs I follow to order some heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. There were so many beans, it was hard to choose, so I went for the starter pack, which had five types. Those beauties you see up there are cranberry beans. They were the start of the inspiration. It was MLK day on Monday, so I was home, and it was sleety and cold, and I was going to be around for awhile, so around noontime, I put a pound of the cranberry beans (about two cups) in with about four cups of water and a half an onion into the slow cooker on high for as long as it was going to take. This is the Rancho Gordo suggested method, which I'd used once before with good success. No soaking, no preplanning, just some beans, water and a half an onion, and a lazy afternoon.

I didn't know what I was going to do with them, but with a pile of cooked beans, there were options.

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As the day wore on, the dish started to take shape.  And it was going to be simple.  I was curious as to just HOW GOOD these heirloom beans were.  They do cost several times the dusty beans you get at the grocery for about a buck a pound.  I was curious whether I could really taste the difference in a simple dish.

I'm also in the mode of clearing out the fridge and pantry.  Read my lips - no new shopping.  I had to use up what I had.  The day before I obtained a pound of nitrite-free, thickly cut, intense looking bacon, and only used half. Bacon and beans.  A classic.  So I had a half pound left.

As the beans were nearing being ready (about three hours later), I diced the bacon, added it to the skillet, and cooked them nice and slow till they started to crisp.  This took about a half hour, drained about three quarters of the fat and added the cooked beans with some of the cooking liquid.  I let those simmer for a bit, to blend the flavors and get hot (15 minutes or so), then added a half a bag of frozen chopped spinach (just to have some greens in the mix...they don't taste like much).  At this point I added a judicious amount of salt (worried that the bacon would have added quite a bit) and some pepper.  I hadn't salted the beans till now.

The inspiration though was the half-eaten bag of cooked chestnuts in the back of the fridge.  I'd found these at an Asian grocery a few months ago, and they'd been languishing in the cupboard until Eleanor discovered them and opened them up. So they needed eating.  Chopped roughly and added to get them warm just as I was ready to serve. 

Plain brown rice was the bed (cooked in a mix of chicken stock and water -- there was a cup or so of stock in the fridge needing finishing), and chopped scallions the garnish (also languishing and needing attention).

The result was a plate of perfectly cooked, not too mushy, creamily textured beans, with little surprises of sweetness from the chestnuts and little surprises of onion-zip from the scallions and little surprises of barely salty but hearty bacon every few mouthfuls.  But mostly, it was the earthy satisfaction of a terrific plate of beans.  I added a tiny sprinkle of fleur de sel for a little more salt, but that was it.

I'd resisted the temptation to put every lingering vegetable in the fridge in the mix.  And every lingering bottle of flavor stood on the sidelines watching.  I didn't even use garlic for heavens sake.

Sometimes, simple is the best.

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