The colder weather is occurring with some regularity and I have been enjoying slow cooking pots of beans. Let me be more specific… not coffee beans but dried legumes.
A pot of properly prepared beans has a pot liker (or gravy) that together with the buttery bite of the bean itself, is very satisfying and unctuous. This is archetypal peasant food and really comforting to me. Seasonal food that just will not do when it’s 70 degrees outside. Foods like beans, stews and other hearty dishes make me enjoy the wintertime.
If you have ever cooked dried beans that didn’t satisfy you, because of a crumbly, too dry texture, you are not alone. The reason why beans taste this way and have this unpleasant texture is because they are too old. Dried beans have a shelf life too.
I was recently at an excellent local restaurant and was served a cup of white bean and kale soup. The broth was excellent. As was the kale. But the white beans had that crumbly and unstatisfying texture. I’m sure the kitchen had boiled them plenty, but the fact could not be ignored, they were past-crop beans. I was once again faced with a pervasive challenge in our culture: Americans don’t care much about beans, that’s why they sell them in cans. And therefore the loose beans that are sold in bags or in bulk bins, that hardly anybody buys, are, in my experience, always so old that you can’t cook them back to their tender, buttery bite.
Beans have long been seen as poor folks food, but this in no way means that their best iteration is not enjoyed by farmers the world over (see recent post: Farmer’s Table Food and Wine). For most people, though, beans are relegated to the tin can. Think about the foods we package in glass jars versus the one’s in tin cans and you’ll get a quick idea of a food’s value in our culture. Here’s the problem with beans in a can, they are cooked in the can and so you’re instructed to rinse the slurry off before using. Why? Because the pot tastes like a tin can.
In Europe dried beans are sold as new crop in the fall and winter. The inventory leftover from the previous crop is sold off as a lesser commodity. Beans grow in the summer and become dried in the fall and are ready for the winter. But if there are still beans left from last summer, and nobody is paying attention, then you end up with old beans which often can not be cooked back into good food.
I recently purchased a pound of heirloom beans from a specialty foods retailer in town and could tell after the overnight soak that the beans were old, once again. I called the bean company and gave them the code date on the bag and in fact they were not this year’s crop. When I asked if they could ship me an assortment of their heirloom beans that were new crop… assuming it was the retailer who had old inventory they said, “oh we are still shipping last years crop.” I asked what’s good about heirloom beans if they are too old to enjoy? They said, “people don’t seem to mind and sales are fine.”
That’s why I am writing to you.
As a southerner, I have a freezer full of butter beans, lady peas and varieties of Crowder peas purchased at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. But I also like black beans, white beans, and brown beans and you cannot buy these locally grown.
So I recently ordered some new crop dried beans from Adobe Milling, a group of farmers in Colorado. They grow the beans at a high altitude and dry farm (meaning: without the use of irrigation), which means, if beans are anything like wine grapes, flavor is maximized. I particularly like the Bolita beans, which are similar to pintos but lighter in color and slightly sweeter in flavor.
The beans are so inexpensive from Adobe Milling, the freight to get them here cost almost more than the beans, so it’s a good idea to go in on an order with a group of friends.
And remember, it’s not your bad cooking. It’s the old beans. Give it another try.