All those months while we were newly vegetarian, COVID-quarantined, searching out provisions online, I kept clicking on Rancho Gordo. In the Napa Valley, owner Steve Sando is a resourceful fellow who researches, grows, prospers, and offers heirloom beans from seeds gathered all around the world. Rancho Gordo’s beans are not just delicious but beautiful, fabled. The large purple Ayocote Morado from Oaxaca is a knock-out, presently my favorite. Large creamy Cassoulet beans are grown from classic French Tarbais seed stock. The beans in tonight’s soup are another favorite, King City Pinks, noted by John Steinbeck in “Tortilla Flat.”
Of course beans are among the most nutritious of foods. A dried bean is a seed, remember, chockablock with dynamism—engineered to produce an enormous plant! In the world’s so-called Blue Zones where people reach uncommonly advanced ages—Icaria, Okinawa, Sardinia, Nicoya, Loma Linda—common in their diet is one-half to one cup of cooked dried beans daily. Yes but—I hear a wiseguy saying–beans take too much time! Folks in exotic places (um, Loma Linda is in exotic San Bernardino County) have leisure—that’s why they live so long…it ain’t the beans…
Early in our quarantine I began the custom of cooking beans on Sunday night for soup (or chili or casserole or Boston-Baked) to serve on Monday…Tuesday…maybe Wednesday. I’ve probably cooked fifty pounds of heritage beans by now. In the beginning I was diddled…did my share of overnight soaking. Consulting cookbooks, magazines, and the internet on the fine points of cooking beans, there were as many conflicting directions as if I’d asked How to Bake a Cake. But then I remembered my friend and editor, Russ Parsons’s Los Angeles Times article, “Don’t Soak Your Dried Beans…!” Read it again. Relieved, I settled on a method that’s simple, enjoyable, requires about twenty minutes in the kitchen.
Russ notes that unsoaked beans have fuller flavor…just think of all the flavor molecules you pour down the drain with the soaking water (or these droughty California days, pour onto the nearest rose bush).
If you have a pizza stone for your oven, by all means set the bean pot on it.
How to easily/quickly cook dried beans without soaking:
Set the oven to 325 degrees. Place the beans in a large sieve or colander and rinse under cool running water, combing the beans with your fingers, checking for pebbles. Turn into a wide deep saucepan, add cool water to come two inches above the beans. Set the uncovered pot over high heat and bring to a rollicking boil. Immediately turn beans and water into a 3-quart (earthenware) bean pot, layering in 2-to-3-inch pieces of a peeled medium-size onion, a large unpeeled carrot, and a long celery stalk with leaves, 2 to 3 peeled and smashed cloves of garlic, and a small branch of rosemary or a couple of stalks of thyme. Drizzle over about 1 tablespoon of olive oil, cover the pot (important—saves much time), slide into the center of the oven. Set the timer for 1 hour. Check then and if beans have softened, stir in 1 teaspoon sea salt (or 2 teaspoons flaked Maldon salt). If beans aren’t tender, return to the oven and check every 30 minutes until they are, then remove from oven, add freshly ground pepper to taste and more salt if needed. Use kitchen scissors to cut large pieces of seasoning vegetables into bite-size. Serve at once or let cool in the pot. Unless it’s very hot in the kitchen, leave the bean pot loosely covered on top of the stove till the next morning for the beans to absorb the broth and develop their flavor. Or turn into a storage container, cover, and refrigerate up to three days. Cooked dried beans retain their quality in a tightly covered container in the fridge for three days—four, if airtight. For longer keeping, freeze them.
A note about the initial boiling. Rancho Gordo recommends boiling hard for 15 minutes. This likely shortens cooking time but it seems to me hard on the beans. Turning the almost-boiling-hot water directly into the bean pot then the pot quickly into the oven saves fuel—and having to keep an eye on it.
The bean pot’s material has an effect on flavor. Earthenware (lead-free) is the pot of choice, and the shape is ideally tall and narrow rather than squat and wide.
Salt added in the middle of cooking? Traditional bean cooks say adding anything acidic (salt is acidic, as are tomatoes) at the beginning retards cooking. Russ didn’t find it so. But I’m timid about bucking tradition and wait to add salt when the beans have softened a little—or at the end.
Say, why bother to heat the oven, why not just simmer beans on top of the stove? That works fine—but you have to keep an eye on it for fear of the broth boiling away. And moderate oven heat gently surrounds the beans and seasoning vegetables, cooking most tenderly, most uniformly. Of course beans cook well in a pressure cooker and a slow cooker, too…but some days I’m not up to fussing with dials and widgets.
Flatulence a problem? The theory is the more beans you eat–that is, eating beans regularly–the body’s chemistry makes an adjustment and eventually you won’t be bothered.
Now do understand that the 30 minutes of this recipe are the minutes you’re in the kitchen. The rest of the cooking time the beans will be taking care of business on their own. Time for this soup from opening the bean package to bringing the pot to the table is about 3 hours. But soup is always more flavorful the second day…I like to let the beans sit and think about things overnight.
This recipe is my basic soup…the can of Italian tomatoes is my basic soup flavoring… It’s a delicious soup–simple and classic. But tonight I realized that it’s lacking a bunch of fennel…I didn’t have any on hand. Fennel is great in soup. So is spinach–you could add chopped fresh spinach leaves and stems at the end. And a handful of cooked Italian soup pasta–little shells or seeds or whirly-gigs.
Great soup is like a dog in the family. Comforting, there when you need it, something to hold you together. For me, bean soup is the German Shepherd of soups…the very best.
Thirty-Minute Bean and Vegetable Soup (Makes 4 to 6 servings)
You can ignore my calling for red onion—I just prefer the red because of their dramatic contrast in a dish, and the fact they have high levels of anti-oxidants.
1 16-ounce package dried pink or red (or white or black) beans, ideally not more than 1 year old
8-9 cups cold water
1 medium red onion, peeled
1 largish carrot, unpeeled
1 long stalk celery, leaves included
2-3 large garlic cloves, peeled, smashed flat
1 branch rosemary or 2 branches fresh thyme, if you have them
3 tablespoons best olive oil
Salt to taste
1 large red onion, peeled and diced
1 28-ounce can organic San Marzano peeled tomatoes (or your favorite canned tomatoes)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup dry white or rosé wine, optional
Finely shredded Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, optional
Please follow the directions above for How to easily/quickly cook dried beans without soaking.
When the beans are tender—or earlier at your convenience–in your big soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and sauté, stirring often, till lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, breaking up whole tomatoes with a big spoon. Rinse out the tomato can with bean broth, add tomatoey broth to the soup pot. Remove the herb, ladle the contents of the bean pot into the soup pot–as you do this, use kitchen scissors to cut the carrot and celery into bite-size pieces (the onion likely will have disintegrated). Stir all gently to mix. Taste for salt and pepper. A little pale wine heightens flavor.
Pass the cheese of your choice for sprinkling on top. Warm naan are lovely with soup.
Now wait till you see the Vaquero bean—Appaloosa mottled black-and-white. The jet Midnight black bean…golden Buckeye beans…Black Caviar lentils…pale yellow Mantequilla beans Sando found years ago in Guanajuato…
Could you have imagined you’d find art, history, and distant places in a bag of beans?
Not to mention a longer life…