Saturday, December 31, 2011

Simple Pot Beans or How the Holidays Got Away From Me.

Oh internets: I've missed you so.

I have received several admonishments for disappointing you, my dedicated (if not numerous) readers, by categorically neglecting my blogging duty. I was informed that I'd better pull myself together right quick and POST SOMETHING ALREADY, lest the fickle love of the Intarwebs wane, and another derelict-in-her-duty food blogger lost in the sea of abandoned weblogs.

And so, I owe you all an apology. Oh, and also, about 6 blog posts.

Just like everyone else at this time of year, Christmas was fully upon me before I knew what was happening, and suddenly my life was one shopping-day / holiday party / earnest 4-mile run after another, Just like every other food blogger, I also had my fair share of culinary delights and gastronomic disasters in the last 6 weeks.  Fortunately, I documented all my triumphs, and they're waiting in a queue for you to inspect.  Unfortunately, I forgot that you might also like to see the disasters, but I forgot to take pictures of the failed pie crusts, the splatted pumpkin purees, and the lumpy deviled eggs, so you'll just have to wait for the next time I royally mess up in the kitchen (you won't wait long).  All in all, the flurry of holiday cooking had me THINKING a great deal about blogging, just not actually doing it. So, in the spirit of the new year, here are the promises I make to YOU, my fine, unwavering readership:

1. In 2012, I promise to post at least ONCE every week.
2. I'll unveil a monthly feature called "Gastronomic Disasters" that occur in my kitchen. WITH pictures.
3. I promise I'll proofread my posts at least once before I publish them. I'm lazy, for sure, but I'm also a college educated lady. I'll try to do better at sparing you the typos.

Okay. On to the show.  Since there's a giant backlog of recipes, over the coming weeks you'll see holiday favorites like the Old Fashioned Aged Egg Nog that's still working its magic at the back of my fridge, and the Deep Dish Apple Pie of Doom.  Sorry they didn't make it into the public arena in time for the holidays, but seriously, how many more food writers needed to talk about apple pie this December? You'll thank me when its 15 degrees in your house on a bitter January afternoon, and a pie recipe wanders across your reader feed.   Not just for Christmastime anymore, kids.

But come tomorrow morning, we'll all be thinking about 31 pounds of cheese we consumed this year, several of them on Christmas day alone, and wondering how we'll get our GI tract back in regular working order. I myself consumed no fewer that 4 different kinds of meat on Christmas day: prime rib, regular BBQ rib (not a typo, I could only eat one), smoked turkey, and honey-baked ham.   But that's standard holiday fare in Georgia. Our gracious host, my ex-military, currently bad-@ss-police-officer brother, primed the pump Christmas morning by devouring 2 fried pork chops before consuming the day's meal, which brings his meat total to 5, not counting the deviled eggs.  In any case, it was an animal-protein-tastic day, and my intestines are still whining about it.

On the eve of the New Year, as we all say in unison that we'd like to lose 10 pounds or so this year, I'm going to spend the rest of this post's real estate on a crucial-but-under-appreciated workhorse food in my kitchen:beans. Yes, yes, beans, beans that musical fruit, and so the rhyme goes (DEAL WITH IT, people, its perfectly natural). Tasty, easy, versatile, nutritious, oh, and did I mention CHEAP? Hell, we gave them out as FAVORS at our wedding.  But we have rules about beans at our house.  Here's the thing though, the number one rule that I have about beans and that I suggest you follow:

Buy AWESOME ones.  

Self-evident, no? But what do I means by awesome beans (also not a typo, just being cute)? I means Rancho Gordo.  Heard of them? No? Click the link now. NOW. YOU WANT TO GO TO THERE. These folks are incredible. They head to Mexico and Central American, buy crazy heirloom beans from grannies at roadside stands, and bring them back here to share with us.  They work with local growers in Latin American countries to bring their crops to us. Rancho Gordo beans cook up faster, because they haven't been stored and dried for years and years.  Their beans cook up tastier, because their heirloom varieties grown in small batches, and they're fresher. Oh: and they have like a zillion kinds. So you won't get bored. And spices and hominy and popping corn and chiles. Plus: flat-rate shipping (holla!).

Now, I know what you're thinking. "5 bucks for a pound of beans? That's outrageous! Beans should be cheap. I can go to a grocery store and buy a pound of dried beans for a DOLLAR." Okay, I hear you.  But here's the thing: you get what you pay for.  The beans in the grocery store are anywhere from 2-4 YEARS off the plant. You can count the varieties on one hand. And the taste: unremarkable. They're cheap protein.  Look, there's nothing WRONG with them.  They're cheap and accessible.  But you'll work hard to conjur a hint of taste from them

The bottom line: if you can afford a cup of coffee at your local cafe, you can afford to buy a pound of beans for $5 instead of $1. And here's why: when you buy grocery store beans, how long do they sit in your pantry? Months, right? Because, they're BORING.  Because they're uninspiring.  So you grab the frozen chicken breast out of the freezer, and you make fajitas instead (exciting! but potentially problematic! where's that chicken from?)  But when you buy freakin' fresh, delicious, unique, and BEAUTIFUL beans, you will EAT MORE BEANS, thus saving yourself money.  So forgo the five dollars of chicken (which gets you 1 meal), and buy a pound of gorgeous beans, and you'll eat like a king for at least 2, if not 3 meals.  And your arteries will thank you.

Seriously, if you need more convincing, email me and I'll talk you into it. I mean, LOOK at these ladies:

Rancho Gordo Cranberry beans

(PS: obviously, your beans don't have to be from Rancho Gordo. There's lots of heirloom bean growers out there. I'm just loyal to these folks, But keep your eye out at farmer's markets and co-ops for locally grown dried beans, or use our friend The Google, who Knows All.)

So with no further admonishment about high-end-bean-purchasing, here's how to make a simple, extremely delicious, full-of-fiber pot of beans that takes no time at all and will keep your belly full and your digestive system happy. No pre-soaking required. You can start this recipe with dried beans after lunch, and have supper ready by 6pm, easy-peasy. Crock Pots ready, set.... SLOW COOK!

Simple Pot Beans
a winter meal triple-threat


1 pound of dried beans (the most beautiful beanies you can find/afford)
1 onion (or shallots, or garlic)
2 ribs of celery (or bell pepper or chiles)
2 carrots
salt & pepper
olive oil, butter, bacon fat, fatback, or another fat of your choice
ham hock, bacon, prosciutto, or other pork product (optional)
chicken or vegetable stock (optional)

 1. Chop yo' stuff. Dice your onion, celery, and carrots into a fine dice. Don't have these things? Try garlic and leeks. Or onion and bell pepper. Just gather your favorite aromatics, and chop down to size.  These are ingredients used to build a flavor base for your beans, but the better beans you buy, the less you need. (Next week's feature: how to properly dice an onion! Neat! Useful!)

 2. Sautee yo' stuff.  Take your fat o' choice, and add 2 tablespoons or so to a large sautee pan over medium heat.  (If you have one, use a regular finish skillet or a cast iron one instead of non-stick. We're using aromatics to build a base of flavor through browning, and a non-stick pan doesn't promote browning as well.)  Once the fat sizzles when an onion piece is dropped in it, your skillet's hot.  Add your aromatics and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until the vegetables become soft.  (If you're using bacon or prosciutto, dice and toss in with this mixture.)

They'll begin to produce small brown bits of carmelized sugars, or fond on the bottom of the pan. This is good. We want this. These are a result of Maillard reactions, complex chemical changes to sugars in foods that create hundreds of volatile, delicious-smelling flavor compounds  Keep the heat at medium - too high, and you'll scorch those lovely browned bits.  You'll start to see them stick to the bottom and sides of the pan. They look like this:

Remove your skillet from the heat, and set it aside.  Now, get this bad boy out of the cabinet: 

Step 3: Lock 'n load.  Rinse your dried beans, and put them in your crockpot. Toss in your sauteed veggies, and then add a cup or so of water to the skillet you sauteed them in, and gather up all that lovely fond, using a spatula to scrape browned bits off the pan.  Toss that water into the pot, then cover the beans with 2-3 times as much water as volume of beans, depending on how much pot likker you like.  Add a generous pinch of salt, or cut your water with half vegetable or chicken stock, if you're inclined. Or, you can add one of these: 

ham hock magic.
 Step 4: Slow Cook. Depending on when you need them, set your crockpot to low or high.  In my crockpot, using fresh Rancho Gordo beans, they'll take 3.5 hours on high, or 5 hours on low to fully cooked.  Dried beans from the grocery store may take an extra hour. ***IMPORTANT NOTE: do not add anything acidic to beans before they're cooked. Acidity will prevent beans from fully cooking, and you'll get tough, unfinished (and unpleasant!) beans.  So, no tomatoes, no lime juice, no vinegar until AFTER they're fully cooked.*** When they're finished, they'll be soft and creamy.

Spritz with lemon or lime juice, season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of rice, quinoa, or another grain, or with cornbread and greens. Or on top of tortillas, topped with queso fresco and fresh green chiles.  Or on squash, with roasted squash seeds. Whatever. Eat your beans. They're good for you. 

P.S. And please, no complaining about getting the toots. Tooting is good for you too. In the immortal words of REM: "Everybody TOOOOOOOOTS... sometimes."