Early Sunday morning, I stumble into my kitchen, kneel down in front of the half-sized closet under the stairs that we use as a pantry, and find some beans. Every surface of the kitchen is piled with unwashed baby bottles and pump parts, the table layered with dirty dishes and unread newspapers. I'm in a fog of yet another sleepless night, preceded by months of mostly sleepless nights, but I know that I want to make beans for dinner. I don't know what I'll do with them exactly—the details will come later—but I set about pouring a bag of dried beans into a sieve, showering them with water as I search for stones. I dump them into an enamel pot and cover them with cold water, then leave them so I can sneak in a shower before my six-month-old daughter wakes up.
Come noontime, the beans are both swollen and softened. Once I place the pot on the gas burner, I toss in some chopped onion and carrot. Sure, I could wait and crack open a regular old can of beans around seven tonight, but the slow simmering means that all day, the kitchen will be a little warmer, feel a little less drafty. The house will begin to smell like something good, like a family meal is in the works, like everything's in order. And then, it will be: The beans will become dinner; the steaming bowls will heat us from the inside. There will be leftovers, and so we won't need to think about what lunch will be for another day or two.
I didn't always appreciate beans the way I do now. Growing up, I rarely ate them, aside from a handful of Great Northerns hidden in the depths of my mother's minestrone soup, or the sweet baked beans she served with a can of molasses-darkened Boston brown bread. But I grew to crave them in my post-college years in New York after frequenting a neighborhood Italian restaurant that served its bread baskets with small bowls of cannellini beans, swimming in olive oil and garlic. The mixture was salty and perfectly pungent, and I remember how the beans would spill onto the table as I tried to cram everything into my mouth, how my hands would smell like garlic and olive oil after I'd picked all the stragglers off of my plate. As long as they kept refilling the basket and the bowl, I could get by with ordering a glass of wine and a cheap plate of pasta—priest stranglers crowned with ricotta, or a simple spaghetti with lemon—alternating every pasta bite with a bean one until I was stuffed. When I didn't feel like going out, I started trying to re-create those beans in my tiny East Village kitchen. I experimented with a can of white beans doctored with green herbs, sometimes cooking the smashed garlic a bit first in the oil, showering the mix with Parmesan and lemon zest. Soon, my version of what I just called "The Beans" didn't have much in common with the original, but it was good and garlicky and filling.
I had a friend in California who was always urging me to move west. Like me, she'd grown up in Oregon and then lived in Manhattan, and she knew that I craved a little more space, a place to hike in the fresh air, nice playgrounds for the kid I'd have someday. She had a real kitchen in San Francisco—with counters—and could do real cooking there. It was tempting. She tried to lure me with tales of her favorite grocery store, where you could stock up on local olive oil from massive dispensers and the bulk bins were full of unusual dried beans from a company called Rancho Gordo. These beans were so fresh, she said, that they barely needed soaking. And they kept their shape, giving a little pop as you chewed. She told me there were more types of beans than I could ever imagine, and that they actually tasted like something, unlike the flavorless paste of so many canned beans. Some types were earthy and mushroomy, others meaty or nutty, all of them silky-creamy inside the skins. These beans were so good that every month or so, my friend and her boyfriend loaded their backpacks with empty jars, biked to the market, and filled them up. The ride back was much tougher.
I did move to California eventually, and once I was settled in, I went to that store and bought the beans: mottled purple Scarlet Runners and Dalmatian-spotted Vaqueros. And I meant to cook them, really, but months went by, and I kept forgetting to soak them. And so they simply sat in their small cellophane bags, taunting me from the pantry.
I didn't get into a bean routine until last year, when I picked up Tamar Adler's wonderful book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace. In it, she writes: "The way to keep bean soaking from getting in the way of your cooking beans is to detach the process from today's hunger and expectations." Just put the beans in a pot with water whenever you happen to think of it, she urges. That way, you can cook them later that same day, or even the next day, and they'll already be soaked and ready. Some recommend soaking your beans in the fridge if you're going to soak them for more than a few hours, since recently dried beans may sprout at warm temperatures, though I've never had a problem. (If you've got just a little time, you can also quick-soak them, and some beans require no soaking at all.) Once the beans are softened, get them simmering.
You don't need to decide how you'll eat the beans until after they're cooked. Adler urges us to think of a big pot of beans as a source of several different meals. The beans won't mind, she notes: "It's the same to them whether you eat them tonight or in three days." Once the cooked beans are tender—luscious and smooth inside, with a little give from the skin, packed with their own meaty, nutty flavor—you can portion them out for all sorts of different dishes. You can mix some with pasta, serve others in their broth with blanched veggies, and save part of the batch plain to rewarm with kale or roasted squash and top with an egg.
Adler also suggests serving your beans with sausages in a sort of faux cassoulet, and making others into a sage-y gratin with any leftover shredded meat you have on hand. You can purée cooked beans into a creamy soup, stuff others in corn tortillas, and when the beans are gone, you can even store the cooking broth in the refrigerator, warming it up to sip on its own. Each spoonful, Adler writes, tells "the story of the beans' slow bubbling amid herbs and garlic." While I was a little skeptical of the idea of bean broth as a meal, Adler's improvisational methods inspired me to start taking it one step at a time, soaking the beans and figuring the rest out later.
On a cool December day, I headed to Rancho Gordo's little outlet in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza market to stock up. The salespeople were handing out samples of vivid maroon Domingo Rojo beans. The beans were lush and dense, remarkably deep in flavor despite the fact that they'd simmered with only a little onion and earthy, almost cumin-like Oregano Indio. A spoonful was enough to stop the shivers, so I took home a bag, along with a pack of gorgeously marbled, purple-and-white Chestnut Limas.
Those limas cooked up velvety and full of mushroom flavor. They were wonderful piled on toast with some caramelized onions and a drizzle of olive oil, and the rest were even better added to a mellow soup. I had some turkey stock on hand, so I mixed it with the bean broth and a tin of tomatoes, then stirred in half a head of escarole until it relaxed its green bends.
Of course, Rancho Gordo isn't the only bean seller out there, and I've become a little obsessed in my search for varieties I haven't tried before. It turns out that many farmers markets have a bean vendor on hand. A fellow food editor based in San Diego recommended that I seek out her local purveyor, Lompoc Beans; they sent me a bag of teeny pink pinquitos to try. The pinquitos made for a killer batch of Josh Bousel's barbecue beans, softening to a creamy texture while holding their shape, and soaking up the bass notes of molasses and bacon nicely. While I didn't have a slow-smoked brisket to serve with them, hot dogs did just fine.
One of my new favorite beans is the Zuni Gold, which I recently mail-ordered from an Idaho-based company called Purcell Mountain Farms. These bronze-colored beans are meaty and satisfying, with a mashed potato–like texture and an umami quality almost like that of Grana Padano cheese. They have twice the flavor of any canned beans I've encountered, and feel more fortifying. A few ladlefuls tucked themselves nicely into the bellies of whole-wheat shell pasta, tossed with sautéed garlic and just-tender spigarello greens, but I'll bet they'd be just as happy with regular broccoli or raab, chard, or kale. I mixed the second half of the pot with a little loose sausage, scrambled eggs, and hot sauce for a killer breakfast taco.
I've also fallen hard for Giant Aztec white runner beans, supposedly nicknamed "mortgage lifters" because they fetched a high enough price to save farmers from foreclosure. I can see why these beans would succeed: After they'd simmered all day with a ham hock and a carrot, I couldn't get over how soothing and creamy they were. The smoky pork highlighted the beans' own rich and marrow-like flavor, but perhaps the best part was the broth that came together in the pot once all the beans were gone. It was delicately earthy and slightly sweet, rich and beany and hammy and warming. I surprised myself, heeding Adler's advice and drinking it straight from a mug. She was right; it was all I needed for lunch all week.