Rendered Fat Content


Paul Cézanne: Road in Provence (c. 1885)

" … the Rosetta Stone recipe for beans."

My life as an erstwhile cook might most easily represent an extended study of dry beans in their near-infinite variety. I was always a fancier of beans. Bean Pot qualified as my favorite childhood supper. I'd ladle pressure-cooked pintos over a slice of bread and swirl a melting hunk of Tillamook Medium Cheddar into the mix to complete the protein and complicate the flavor. From there, I attempted to cook every size, shape, and variety of dry beans I encountered, from split dal to Christmas Limas, with varying success. My beans would often seem overcooked, lacking bite and texture, refried right out of the pot. Other times, I could not get the buggers to soften. Nobody's gastrointestinal tract appreciates blood-rare garbanzos.Further, the locations of my various kitchens and varying techniques influenced the results. Beans might never thoroughly cook at nine-thousand feet in the Rockies and might finish too quickly so that a moment's inattention can render them ruined nearer sea level in Seattle or Portland or even here at The Villa. I remained an enthusiastic, if inconsistent, producer in the Beaning department.

Three significant insights have improved my results over time, and an additional most recent experience promises more consistent future results.
My sixty years of experience were slow to mature into deep understanding. I spent decades making the same unconscious mistakes while expecting different results. I could blame the literature, for the literature on peasant foods generally exhibits altogether too much pretension. The recipes tend to have been updated for the modern kitchen, and this always bodes poorly when the gist involves carrying forward original intentions. Gratefully, we designed our kitchen without a place for a microwave oven, so we're forced to reinterpret all those reformers prescribing entirely futuristic variations. Beans have received far too little attention, and most cookbooks offer utterly incorrect instructions.

I learned always to soak my beans first and why this step qualifies as necessary work. I soak my beans in water, improved with baking soda or lemon juice, to reanimate the otherwise inert plant within it. The soaking solution reawakens the slumbering bean in ways mere water cannot. I'm unclear how this works or why, but my experience since I took up this practice insists that it's more than merely a good idea or kitchen lore. The water should be cold, not warm, and certainly not scalding. If you don't have time for the beans to reawaken in this fashion, you don't have time for beans. What you might produce by immediate boiling or scalding then soaking will not live up to your expectations, however meager, so admit defeat and slip the beans into a menu later in the week. They must receive proper soaking.

I never cook beans in water. Once they've become soft, as soft as a fresh bean would be, drain and rinse thoroughly so that the baking soda doesn't foam up the cooking beans and the lemon flavor doesn't intrude on any other taste. I cook my beans in stock, never water because stock infuses the beans with flavor otherwise unachievable. It also adds subtle texture since my stock tends to be much thicker than water. I also avoid simmering my beans on the stovetop because controlling the temperature there is too difficult. A medium burner will scorch the bottom of any protein-heavy bean pot, regardless of how thick. Also, stovetop burners quickly become positive feedback loops, bidding up their initial setting to produce greater heat than expected. I bake my beans in stock in the oven.

For decades, I followed instructions I found in an old Eliot Paul novel where he described the Friday night bean supper he remembered from his childhood in Massachusetts. He placed a covered pot like a Dutch oven, filled with beans, water, and a hambone, slow roasting at three hundred degrees through a whole long day. I'd often put my beans in before bed to have freshly-finished
Beans for Breakfast. In Colorado, not even overnight proved adequate to finish a pot of beans, even if I increased the oven temperature. Returning to more coastal conditions, I couldn't seem to adapt to produce proper beans again. They'd soak so quickly that their skins would fall off, then cook so quickly they'd lose all texture, too. I was stuck in that Can't Loop until I stumbled into the latest colossal improvement.

The Muse bought one of those Combi Ovens—we call it The EZ-Bake—where I can control the temperature and humidity to essentially sou vide without the water bath and plastic bag. This oven works great for a raft of foodstuffs. The Muse cooks her yogurt in it at 114 degrees with 100% steam. She also bakes bread as if in a steam injection oven. I'd never tried cooking beans in it until last week, though. Their bean recipe surprised me because it didn't suggest anything like my usual three-hundred-degree temp. It suggested setting it for two-hundred-thirteen. I was intrigued. Could I cook beans at a single degree over boiling? After two hours, my Cassoulet beans needed more cooking. Two hours later, they still required more as I threw in the duck hindquarters and sou-vided fatback. Two hours later, they were approaching doneness. The Muse had gone to a meeting instead of staying home for dinner, so I decided to defer supper until the following evening.

The next day, I removed the beans from the refrigerator and replaced them in the EZ-Bake oven, two-hundred-thirteen again. I left them there for another four hours when the beans achieved perfect al dente doneness without a hint of underlying mushiness. I reheated some in my trusty double-boiler for breakfast the following day, and they retained that ideal doneness. I reheated more for supper two days later, and still, they were perfect after perhaps eight hours at 213 degrees. Finally, I've stumbled upon the secret to cooking beans!

A promising future stretches out before me now. I no longer hold that existential dread that my beans might not quite meet my highest expectations. I can see how I might reliably produce the supper I always wanted every time. I understand that the sauce might need to be reduced for some dishes. That's best done after draining off the liquid and separately cooking it at a higher temperature. The beans should never need more heat, just more time, depending on their natures. I will experiment to determine if I have discovered the Rosetta Stone recipe for beans. I'll let you know if I find any shortcomings.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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