I have a unique fondness for beans.
I didn't always like them.
My mother, a wacky, terrible cook, never realized that beans must be washed before cooking. So I grew up with the erroneous assumption that all beans tasted like dirt. And then one day, I ate my grandmother's Pinto Beans, slow-cooked, smoky and thick, with homemade cornbread on top, and I was hooked. Thus a lifelong habit of eating beans once a week ensued.
Now to the soup. For many years, I had trouble cooking beans. I would lovingly prepare them in the crock pot, in the morning, only to arrive home in the evening to al dente soup - and this is not how beans were meant to be eaten. Beans are supposed to be soft, tender, and buttery. I tried many different things to fix the problem - longer soaking time, longer cooking time, cooking them on the stove, salt, no salt, bottled water. But nothing worked. No matter what cooking method I used, my beans were always firm and undercooked. And then one day I came across an article about the freshness of dried beans, and how most beans we buy in the supermarket are old beans - meaning that they have been hanging around for a while. Often these beans are several years old by the time we buy them. Atrocity(!). Thankfully this article saved me from a lifetime of undercooked beans, and set forth an interminable quest for, fresh, dried beans. And yes, they are out there. But one has to look for them.
I finally found Rancho Gordo beans and they are the best. His fresh Napa Valley beans cook up tender and delicious every time. You can buy them online at www.ranchogordo.com.
Recently at my local farmer's market, I hit pay dirt when I found a bag of fresh, dried Colorado Pinto Beans. I came home lugging this 10 lb. gunny sack like I'd won the lottery.
This is what I made the next day.
Mexican Bean Soup
The recipe is pretty basic. I always begin with a 'holy trinity' of some type of green pepper, onion, and garlic - along with some type of fat or oil - olive oil, a smoky piece of bacon, or some leftover ham will do. Next the spices: chili powder, dried red chile's, cumin, bay leaf, whatever your heart desires. Next, in a large dutch oven, add the presoaked beans and cover with water, or chicken stock, and cook on top of the stove until the mixture begins to bubble. Then, with the lid on, put the entire pot of beans into a 225 to 250 degree oven and cook until soft and tender. This can be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on the freshness of the beans and how long you soaked them. I topped this bowl of beans with a squeeze of fresh lime, some cilantro, fresh chiles, and Cotija cheese.
The easy part of this recipe came one morning when I was in a hurry and asked myself, why am I chopping all these vegetables? So I drizzled some olive oil into the pot, threw in giant chunks of carrots, onions, and celery, heated things up a bit, added the beans and water, put the lid on, stuck it in the oven - and voila! - the best pot of beans I had eaten in a long time. And for some reason, my family really enjoyed these tasty chunks of vegetables in the soup.
This recipe is versatile. Just change the seasonings according to what type of beans you are cooking. For white beans, I like to add lots of olive oil, carrots, onion, rosemary, and celery. For black beans, or Pintos, I prefer green peppers in place of the celery. And for a mixed bean soup, freshly chopped tomatoes add a nice, bright touch. Always remember to begin with the freshest beans available, soak them overnight, cook them covered, low and slow, in the oven, and you will end up with a tender, flavorful pot of perfectly cooked beans.
One last note: many recipes call for salting beans at different times. I prefer to salt mine toward the end of the cooking process.
Please share with me some of your favorite bean recipes. I've got a lot of beans to cook here.