Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bean Cookery

To soak or not to soak?
That is the question

While having my Sunday morning coffee I was looking through Diana Kennedy’s book “From My Mexican Kitchen, Techniques and Ingredients” and read her instructions for basic bean preparation:

“I do not agree with soaking beans over night, whether you discard the soaking water or not. To my taste the skins always develop an unpleasant flavor.”

I have always soaked dried beans overnight, so I went to the pantry and grabbed a bag of pinto beans, then followed her instructions. As always, pick through the beans for any stones or shriveled specimens. Then cover with cold water to clean and pick out any chaff. Drain and place the beans in your cooking vessel. She recommends a ceramic bean pot but any thick bottomed pot will do, I used a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Cover with hot water, making sure that it is at least 3 inches above the level of the beans. At this stage she states that some cooks like to add a little lard or maybe onion or garlic. I added nothing at this point. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cover. Simmer for anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 hours. Age is a factor, the older the beans, the longer the cooking time, so, with store bought beans you can’t really be sure how long they are going to take. Add water as needed during the cooking process. When the beans are just tender add salt to taste and continue cooking until done. There is controversy as to the addition of salt at the start of cooking. Some people believe that it causes the beans to be tough and emphatically avoid early salting. Others disagree and find no difference in tenderness but insist that the beans are more flavorful. Ms. Kennedy waits to add the salt because that is the traditionally preferred method in Mexican cooking but does not find any difference in texture. I have to agree with her. One observation of note that I made during the cooking process was that the unsoaked beans did not produce the gigantic layer of white foamy scum on top that one has to skim off. I emailed Harold McGee and asked him what was up with that? He replied that during the soaking process proteins are dissolved out of the beans and then coagulated during the cooking. This leads me to believe that unsoaked beans would contain more protein and therefore be more nutritious. I haven’t found an answer to that question yet; can anyone reading this provide any information? The finished beans came out with an incredibly smooth and creamy texture and seemed significantly more tender than usual. I will have to try a side by side cooking test, soaked vs. unsoaked to get an accurate opinion. However, I have been sold on the unsoaked method and will not be soaking my beans prior to cooking.

Legumes, (the family of plants which beans belong to) are the third largest family of plants in the world (behind orchids and daisies) and second only to grains in importance to the human diet. Culturally they are perhaps the most significant, as they are the backbone of so many of the heavy hitters of cuisine in nearly every gastronomic region.
Cassoulet, Frijoles Negro, Gigantes Elephantes, Boston Baked Beans, Pasta Fagioli, Bohneneintopf, Hummus, Succotash, etc. When you think about these dishes a distinct, timeless cultural identity, associated with each, comes to mind. It is possible to even buy the correct legumes to prepare these various cultural culinary icons authentically. Localvore it is not, but there is no comparison for the taste and texture of Castelluccio or Puy lentils, Giant Lima beans from Kastoria or French Tarbais beans. If you can’t get them in a local shop many online suppliers have the right bean for the right job and you can expand your global legume repertoire.

So what did I do with my beans once they were cooked? I simmered chopped leeks and garlic in a skillet, in 3 cups of olive oil with fresh thyme and rosemary. I added this to the beans, but only with a half cup of the olive oil. Leaving the remaining 2 1/2 cups in the skillet. I then finished seasoning the beans with a healthy dose of Pimenton de la Vera, chopped flat leaf parsley and a final adjustment of salt and pepper. Next I simmered peas in 2 cups of chicken stock for 1 minute, added butter, olive oil, orange zest, chopped scallions, salt, pepper and 2 cups of whole wheat couscous, stirring, covering and then set aside. I reheated the olive oil remaining in the skillet to 150 ˚ F and placed salmon fillets in the oil, poaching until medium rare to medium, about 3 or 4 minutes per side. I brushed the salmon with Citrus Beurre Blanc and squeezed on a few drops of fresh basil oil. Plate rustically, serve and enjoy. Oh, and the wine? We had this with a 100% Petit Verdot 2006 from Boston Winery, made in Boston with premium Sonoma fruit.

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