My boyfriend doesn’t understand beans. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an extremely smart man. If you need a computer fixed, if you need something rewired, if you need to figure out how dopamine affects people’s economic decision making, he’s your guy. Anything about food not related to store-bought cookies or sourdough bread....eh...not so much. Which is why when I was standing in front of the Brooklyn Bean Co counter at the Flea on Saturday and trying to decide which of the five varieties of beans I had never heard of I was going to try this week, he thought I was finding lunch.
It was a particularly infuriating exchange, because just like I don’t understand when he tries to talk to me about programming languages or asks me questions that require me to make any sort of mental image (“You can’t just picture the map in your head? I mean, they’re not right angles--of course it’s farther to walk that way...”), he doesn’t understand that you have to cook dried beans.
D: So, you have your lunch now.
Me: (eyeing my pound and a half of dried beans and wondering how I could possibly eat them) Well, no, I was going to have some of these for dinner tomorrow.
D: Should we sit?
Me: If you want. (Sits)
D: Aren’t you going to eat?
I think you can see where this is going. Don’t worry. We went upstairs and got a chocolate croissant from Runner and Stone to share and everything was better.
As we were walking home though, the bean questions continued:
“Why don’t you just get the kind in the can?”
“Why are those beans special?”
“They cost how much?”
“Why do they have a dot in the middle? Do they have a disease?”
I tried to answer these questions for him, but he doesn’t really care.
So, I’ll tell you all because if you’re reading this you obviously care about food.
European Soldier Beans are an heirloom bean variety that used to be very common in New England and in other parts of the northeast. They’re mostly white with a “toy soldier shaped” reddish dot in the center. I don’t really see that, it’s just kind of a red splotch, but I’ll go with it. They have a creamy texture, similar to a cannellini bean, and have a relatively mild flavor that I can only describe it as being “more bean-y” than the cannellini. I wish I had better adjectives for you--really I do--but alas, I do not. These beans are primarily used for baking and for stews. They held up really well to both the simmering part of the recipe and the sitting under the broiler part of the recipe.
If you’ve never tried cooking your own beans, I highly recommend it. The beans turn out far superior to canned beans in flavor and texture. You can control the salt and other seasonings. The best part though, is when you saute or bake the beans, they get a lovely golden crust on them. Yum.
To cook your own beans: Rinse the beans and pick out any bits of pebbles or whatever else from them. Soak the dried beans overnight in water. When you’re done soaking, drain and rinse them. Place them in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with water by one inch. At this point you can add herbs, a clove or two of garlic, a halved onion--pretty much anything but salt. Bring the water to a boil, skimming out any foam that forms on the top. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for about one hour, or until beans are tender (taste more than one to make sure). At this point, turn off the heat, add salt to taste and let sit for about 5-10 minutes before draining. At this point the beans can be used a recipe, refrigerated, or frozen.
Potato, European Soldier Bean, and Spinach Ragout
1 T olive oil
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 medium potato, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T dry white wine
1 pint jar whole tomatoes with garlic & herbs (or 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes with herbs)
1 ½ c cooked European Soldier beans (or 1 14.5 oz can cannellini beans)
2 c chopped raw spinach (about ¾ of a bunch)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ c Asiago cheese (optional)
Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden and softened (about 10 minutes).
Turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the potatoes and garlic to the skillet. Season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for another five minutes, or until the potatoes are beginning to soften a bit and color. Add the white wine. Cook, stirring, until the wine has evaporated.
Add the tomatoes with all of their juices and the beans. If you are using whole tomatoes, break them up a bit with a spoon. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover the pan and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the potatoes are softened.
Add the spinach and cook until it’s just wilted. Season the dish with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Top with the cheese (if you’re using it) and pop the whole pan under the broiler for a minute or two until the cheese is melted and bubbling.