A favorite vendor at our farmers’ market had a pile of beautiful cranberry beans – beautiful for their mottled red, cream and green pods, for the glossy speckled-striped seeds within and for their culinary prospects. These are sold when the beans are mature and the pods have begun to dry on the plant, and you cannot just pop them into your mouth like peas. Well, I guess you could — and you could even chew them (you should, too, just to get familiar with your ingredients), but you won’t be thrilled with the raw, starchy flavor. Considering that they’re fresh, they can need quite a lot of cooking: They might be done in 20 minutes, or they might take as long as well-soaked and reconstituted dried beans, which they resemble in consistency.
A little chopped onion; a clove of garlic; a couple of tiny carrots, sliced; a dried chili, broken up; some diced Italian speck (smoked prosciutto): I sweated all these in olive oil, then added maybe two cups of shelled beans, a few sage leaves, a light hit of salt and pepper, plus water to cover, along with some more olive oil for flavor. I simmered this for the better part of an hour – a very slow simmer (but start tasting after 20 minutes, because these beans vary wildly). The beans were going to get some further simmering once I’d decided what to do with them, so I wanted them cooked and fairly soft, but not creamy-tender, much less falling apart. I let the beans cool in the liquid, which softened them a little further, then put them in the fridge to await a decision on their fate.
As a flavorful multicultural building block, cooked beans can give you a head start on so many meals: soups, rice (beans add a lot to a paella-type dish, for instance, not to forget rice and beans), salads, side dishes (alone or mixed with other vegetables) and dips (pureed with herbs, garlic and olive oil), to name a few.
And then, there are the stew/casserole sorts of dishes such as cassoulet, and that’s where I got into winter territory. I had in the freezer a one-pound-plus chunk of skin-on pork belly (a twin of the one I used for a “Chinese” dish with turnips a few weeks ago, and a voice (mine, I guess) kept intoning, “Pork and beans, pork and beans, pork and beans.” That could mean anything, of course, and a determined cook could have devised something – almost – summery. But I succumbed and went the hearty route. What the heck; we have air conditioning.
While the beans were cooking, I rubbed the pork (tied into a neat shape with cotton twine) with garlic, rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil and refrigerated it overnight, next to the beans. (The overnight wait was obligatory for neither the beans nor the meat.) The next day, I very slowly and very thoroughly browned it over medium-low heat; it took the better part of half an hour to brown all sides. I removed it to a plate and in the same pan softened a little bit of chopped onion, garlic and carrot and deglazed this twice with white wine. The meat went back into the pan along with 1/3 cup of veal stock (chicken or pork stock would have been okay – or indeed a mixture of water and something like pureed tomatoes, perhaps with a little soy sauce for more umami) and a scant teaspoon of wine vinegar to provide needed tartness. I turned the heat to low and covered the pan.
Every quarter hour over the course of about 90 minutes I basted and turned the meat, adding dribbles of stock as necessary, until it was beautifully glazed and just short of done – it needed another 20 minutes or half hour, max. At this point I added some of the beans and stock to cover, checked for seasoning and simmered until the meat and beans were both perfectly tender. I set the meat onto a cutting board and did something that sounds fussy but is really worth the two minutes’ effort: I poured the beans and gravy through a strainer and used a fat separator to eliminate at least some of the admittedly delicious grease from the liquid. Beans and defatted sauce went back into the pan to reheat while I untied the pork belly, halved it crosswise (to make two smaller, easier-to-cut pieces) and carved half-inch slices. I spooned a portion of beans and sauce onto each plate and topped it with a slice of meat.
Here’s a difference between summer and winter: On a frigid day, we might have had the appetite to eat most or all of this small piece of pork, but with the temperatures hovering around the boiling point, a couple of slices were entirely satisfying. It’s rich meat, especially with the skin on (and you must eat the skin if your pork came with it): The collagen makes your lips stick together, and when I was slicing it, I had to pry my fingers off the surface. And even in the half hour the beans cooked with the pork, they took on plenty of its flavor. A well integrated, delicious dish (and one that would be easy to cook in larger quantity, with a big slab of pork belly, for a dinner party).
You may want a little salad afterward, just tender lettuce dressed with good olive oil, salt and a few drops of lemon juice; it’ll leave you with the illusion that you’ve had a refreshing dinner, not merely a delectable one. Or of course you could file this dish away for January, when you can make it with dried beans.