Megan Scott has been both a cheese maker and a goat herder. Currently, she’s working with her husband, John Becker, on updates to the American classic cookbook ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and has recently overseen production of their new website. She lives, writes, and keeps chickens in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
I have two kitchen alter egos. One is a fast-paced, surly kitchen dominatrix who makes her ingredients submit to her whims. She’s the one who can have scones in the oven in eight minutes flat, the one who can knead an unresponsive dough into malleability, the one who can have all four oven racks loaded at once with no timer set for anything.
The other is a slow and steady cook, content to chop vegetables for unspecified amounts of time, willing to peel a bushel of tomatoes in silence, patient enough to wait for a chicken to roast (but who then eats the tail and the tips of the wings as soon as the bird comes out of the oven, because those are the best parts and should not be suffered to sit cooling).
I’ll readily admit that one of my alter egos has gotten out of hand recently, and it isn’t the one who stops to smell the ripe and fragrant melon. I find myself, more and more, making the ingredients submit to me, rather than the other way around. I spend my time in the kitchen — which is not an insignificant amount of time — whirling from one thing to another, never giving any one process or action its due.
In my own estimation, I have simply fallen behind. There is produce piling up on the counters, I haven’t had time to bake bread in weeks, and, more than perhaps anything else, I am tired. Too tired to lazily swish salad greens in a bowl of cold water. Too tired to start the batch of kimchi I promised myself I’d make. Too tired to be the cook I want to be.
Thankfully, I remembered to take a moment to reevaluate. In hindsight, I don’t know why I waited so long to do something so simple. I began by sitting down to breakfast, and then I lingered. I had two cups of coffee instead of my customary single, rushed cup. I pulled out a few favorite cookbooks and flipped through them idly, not looking for anything in particular, simply absorbing their contents.
If it is true that we tend to find the thing that we are not searching for, then it is most certainly true that we find inspiration when we cease to search actively for it. In many ways this is the sort of Zen truism that perhaps we learned from reading Siddhartha in the 10th grade, but that we have since forgotten in our very American way of forgetting.
The ability to allow something to come to you — rather than searching, digging, rooting around in the muck for it — is counterintuitive to those of us who have been taught to try, try, and try again.
I do believe in getting back up on the horse after it has thrown you, but the proverb has more depth than at first glance. Before getting back up on the horse, you must determine why it threw you in the first place. Is there something about the horse that you need to learn, or something about yourself? Sometimes — often, in fact — it is both.
And so I took stock. I rummaged through the fridge. There were some lonely tomatillos rattling in the bottom of the crisper drawers, which I threw into a roasting pan along with some unpeeled cloves of garlic. I started a pot of cranberry beans, adding a carrot, celery stalk, bay leaf, and a sprig of savory. I found two beautiful eggplants that I had forgotten, wrapped them in foil, and tucked them in the oven with the tomatillos. Lunch had begun without a single feather ruffled.
I refilled spice jars, consolidated bags of grains from the food co-op, and set out stale bread to crisp up for croutons. I took things off shelves, cleaned the shelves, and put things back. I made a pot of tea, fed my sourdough starter, and took a trip to the garden to harvest the day’s produce. I began to feel incredibly productive and inspired almost without realizing it.
When we allow ourselves to be buffeted by time, we begin to neglect things in the process; often, we neglect the very things we value the most. One of the reasons that cooking — the act and the result of the act — is dear to me is that, despite a very vocal and active food community, most people do not cook. Or, if they cook, they are at least as harried as I have been recently, which explains the popularity of prepared and pre-cooked foods and the general lack of inspiration or motivation in the kitchen, that warmest room of the house where we once gathered for fellowship.
I will not waste time bemoaning the state of the American kitchen. I think we all know what really goes on there these days. However, one causal problem seems to remain unexamined by the food community at large. That is, just as the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest among us is said to have widened, so has the gap widened between those who do not cook at all and those who cook almost constantly.
On the one hand, there are those who do not have the energy for anything after they get off work, much less cooking a meal. For these people, there are innumerable prepared foods to choose from, each seemingly less wholesome and less fulfilling than the last.
On the other hand, there are those of us who cook every day. We may cook simply because we enjoy it, but many of us also cook for a living or write about cooking for a living. For us there are glossy cookbooks, trendy food magazines, and the Cult of the Chef. We talk of braising fava beans and infusing cream with precious vanilla beans. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that.
My point, I suppose, is that cooking, at its roots, is simple, and that those of us who are advocates of cooking — for health, for recreation, for the sake of the dinner table — would do well to remember that and project it. We may revel in the challenges of constructing a gâteau opéra or in experimenting with sous vide cookery, and those things are fine and exciting, but we would do well to remember the homely pot of beans.
This is what I propose to keep us grounded, individually and collectively. When we cook a pot of beans on a Sunday afternoon (or whatever your day off happens to be), we are participating in a hereditary act of cookery. One in which we may all, regardless of background, ethnicity, or economic status, participate.
Nearly every culture and culinary tradition calls upon beans to round out its meals. I’ll wager there are beans in your family’s history, whether they are cannellinis simmered with olive oil and sage, lentils tossed in vinaigrette, or pintos cooked until they create their own unctuous gravy.
Beans are frugal and simple and hearty. A pot of beans is not a rushed affair, even though we have learned to get them from cans. Beans cooked in the slow manner retain a delicate bite, allowing us to cook them in quantity and use them throughout the week without worrying about them disintegrating. They are a sure thing in times of uncertainty, and they will be there when you get home late from work, too tired to think about much besides taking off your shoes.
Once cooked, beans require only a little fuss to become a meal. We often sauté an onion, a jalapeño, some garlic, and spices, and then add cooked beans. With a little water, stock, or even chopped tomatoes, the beans create a rich stew that need nothing so much as a bowl of rice to make a meal. You could add lardons or a ham hock to make the dish more substantial, but this is purely a matter of preference.
Beans can also become little cakes, pan-fried until golden and crispy on the outside, creamy and tender on the inside. Simply season the beans as you like, add a bit of binder such as beaten egg, shape them into small, flat cakes, and fry them.
Depending upon the type of bean you cook, there are endless variations on the theme. Toss inky beluga lentils with a basic vinaigrette. Turn split peas into dal or a simple puréed soup. Simmer cannellinis in a generous glug of olive oil with rosemary or sage. Whirr favas in a food processor with some oil and herbs for an alternative to run-of-the-mill hummus. Make your own bean burgers. Bake beans covered with bread crumbs and salty, pungent cheese in a shallow dish.
Beans are amenable to scores of applications, but before they can be manipulated, they must be cooked. You could use canned beans, but that defeats the purpose of the meditative and restorative act of bean cookery. I want to encourage you to cook a pot of beans the old-fashioned way not because it is kitschy or quaint, but because it is better for the flavor of the bean, for your pocketbook, and for your cooking practice.
Beans are not difficult or tricky to cook, and they are one of the cheapest foods you can buy — unless, of course, you go in for the many varieties of heirloom beans on the market, which are venerable and supremely delicious, though perhaps beyond the scope of what I would like to discuss here.
You may have been discouraged from cooking beans in the past because of their supposed need to be soaked overnight. In my experience, however, chickpeas and soybeans are the only dried beans that truly benefit from soaking, as these beans tend to take up to three hours to cook fully, a good deal longer than most other beans.
Beans should be rinsed and sorted, however, as the hulling process they undergo renders them dusty. I like to do this particularly because I save the bean cooking liquid and treat it like stock for adding to anything that needs a liquid flavor boost.
Much has also been made of adding salt during the cooking process. One kitchen myth is that adding salt at the beginning of cooking prevents beans from softening. However, while salt added early does slow the softening of the beans somewhat, this is the best way to season them thoroughly. The salt actually permeates the skin and results in evenly seasoned beans. Per Harold McGee, if you do soak your beans, adding salt to the soaking water is the best option of all as it seasons the beans and speeds the cooking time.
Having said all that, I still prefer to salt my beans after cooking, as I tend to use the cooked beans in a variety of applications, some of which involve other salty ingredients such as cheese or olives. Beans that have not been salted at the start of cooking or during the soaking period may burst. If you cook your beans at a gentle simmer, however, this should not be a dire issue.
Until you get a feel for cooking different types of beans, I recommend checking for doneness every 20 minutes. As the beans approach doneness, you may need to check more often. One metric for doneness is to scoop a few beans out of the pot and blow on them. The skins of cooked or nearly cooked beans will shiver, wrinkle, and peel back. Another good, though perhaps less subtle, way of checking for doneness is to simply chew a few beans and decide whether they are done to your liking or not. I tend to very slightly undercook my beans, as I often reheat them for use in other dishes.
As for the sticky wicket — that is, what I like to politely call “the aftermath” — I have found that when you incorporate more beans into your diet, your stomach begins to digest them more easily. Some studies suggest that adding a strip of kombu to your beans as they cook prevents digestive trouble, but I have never done this and manage just fine. Beans are a hearty food, but they are also very healthy and satisfying, which I believe is enough of a pedigree to warrant training your tummy to take to them as readily as your taste buds.
What’s more, cooking beans is one way to reconnect to cooking as preliminary to the act of eating. Many of us who cook for the sake of cooking would do well to remember the age-old pot of beans and the pure, satisfying meals it engenders.
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