Beans have been central to my cooking strategy since my college years in Austin. In a little run-down house, I’d light one of the semi-clogged burners on the old gas stove, and in a vintage Griswold cast-iron skillet my mother had given me I’d pan-fry a thin pork chop. Then I’d make a quick sauce out of canned black beans and sliced cabbage, two of the cheapest ingredients (besides ramen noodles and family-pack pork chops) I could find.
I can think of many ways I’d change that recipe if I were to revisit it these days, but the biggest difference is this: I wouldn’t open a can of beans. They may be convenient, but canned beans don’t have anything close to the flavor or texture of those I cook from dried, nor are they anywhere near as cheap. I long ago got into the habit, so I pretty much always have a pound of red, white, brown or black beans — with names such as Snow Cloud, Rio Zape and Jacob’s Cattle — soaking in a bowl, bubbling away on the stove top or sitting in the fridge or freezer awaiting their next use.
Especially because I started eating less meat, their protein keeps me satisfied, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s little they can’t do. I’ve found kindred spirits in my sister and brother-in-law in southern Maine, where I’m living this year and cooking sometimes for the three of us and sometimes just for myself. Every day, we have beans: soup, salad and/or appetizer. (So far, no dessert, although it’s not out of the question.)
That’s not to say we agree on all things leguminous. Some days it seems that the Mason-Dixon line runs not along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border but down Maple Street in North Berwick, cleaving the kitchen in two. On one side, Peter likes nothing better than to slow-cook his beans in a big pot with mustard seed, maple syrup and brown sugar or molasses, New England-style, while Rebekah and I, Texas roots showing, prefer to spike them with cumin and chili peppers and eat them with corn tortillas. (Confession: Sometimes we sneak some heat into his portion as well, to test a theory that what he doesn’t know won’t strike him as too spicy.)
You might assume that our bean devotion would ebb as summer heats up, but not this year, especially because the household has turned two-thirds vegan. More often than not, they want to eat beans in combination with greens and grains, a power trio I appreciate. But the busier we get in the garden and the hotter the days become, it’s tempting to merely drain and rinse the beans and toss them with freshly picked lettuces or the like.
Despite beans’ versatility (or perhaps because of it), I sometimes take them for granted, which is how I found myself in need of inspiration. Along came Crescent Dragonwagon’s latest cookbook, “Bean by Bean” (Workman, 2012). Dragonwagon describes herself as a “low-key bean evangelist,” but chapter titles such as “Hummus, Where the Heart Is” blow that idea: The Vermont author practically shouts the glories of beans from the rooftops. (It’s a longtime love affair; she wrote “The Bean Book” four decades ago.) Even though she is vegetarian, she includes favorite recipes from her meat-eating days and doesn’t proselytize too vehemently about beans’ nutritional benefits, even though they are considerable.
“I always have this sense of food as triangular, in that one point is nourishment, one point is connection and one point is pleasure, and I always come at it from the pleasure and connection points, and the nourishment follows,” she told me in a phone interview. “Besides, I always think it’s damning with faint praise to say something is good for being vegetarian. That’s like someone telling me, ‘You look really good for 59.’ Either I look good or I don’t.”
In “Bean by Bean,” Dragonwagon includes practical guides to various soaking techniques (and ways to reduce beans’ gassy side effects), explains varieties and their cooking times, gives entertaining asides about beans’ place in history and, most important for the inspiration-impaired, offers what the subtitle describes as “More Than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!”
I immediately flipped to the “Cool Beans” chapter and its section on full-meal salads, and two options jumped out at me: a bean-and-barley salad flavored with ginger, rice vinegar and peanuts, and marinated French lentils with beets, oranges and walnuts.
Both of them are perfectly suited to the tastes of my sister and brother-in-law (the recipes are neither Yankee nor Texan). My culinary attention span frankly is shorter than theirs, so I reserved these strategies for myself. I knew they’d be perfect for those days when I’m in the kitchen alone and want to throw something together that would make interesting use of already-cooked beans.
That’s what Dragonwagon does when her partner, David, travels and leaves her on her own. “Beans are such a nice, neutral canvas, you can make a big, basic pot of them and then play around with them differently every day,” she said.
That’s just what I was after. Besides, before I know it I won’t have my housemates to cook for (and with). My year of homesteading in Maine is half over, and once it ends I’ll be fending for myself again, needing all the beans, and bean recipes, I can soak up.
Yonan, author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), is on a year-long book leave. He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joeyonan.