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The little Italian I know, from cookbooks and my mother, is enough to make me associate the language (perhaps over-romantically, perhaps not) with fairy tales, the language itself and what the language describes coming to life like characters you might meet on the street. There’s pasta alla boscaiola (boscaiola being a woodcutter’s wife), nubby little cookies called brutti ma buoni (ugly but good), minni di virgini (festive iced cakes made to look like the lopped breasts of the beloved saint Agatha), and mangiafagioli, which literally means “bean-eater” and colloquially gestures to bean-loving Tuscans. I love this, especially, because I very much identify as a bean-eater.
If you have not yet discovered the pleasures of making beans from dried, I hope that this is the year (the week! the day!) you do. When I make beans I feel like I am performing a miracle, restoring life to a dead thing—in a beautiful way, not a Frankenstein way. All you really need are the beans themselves, plus some water and some time and some salt, and you’ve got something creamy and comforting and hearty, if plain. But they needn’t be plain. Anything you add to the pot will give its voice to the mix, and that anything can range from shallots or ginger to cinnamon sticks or a heap of bacon.
But first we need to talk about two things: freshness and soaking.
If your dried beans aren’t fresh—that is, they’ve been gathering significant dust either in your cabinet or on your grocery store’s shelf, they will never become creamy and tender. Simple as that. There’s no way to tell how old the dried beans at your market are, but your best bet will be to buy them someplace where there is a lot of turnover. For me, that’s my much-frequented co-op; for you, it might be your local Latin grocer or a specialty bean supplier (Rancho Gordo's great). If you’ve had beans in your cabinet for more than two years, it’s probably time to get some new ones.
There is much debate on whether to soak or not to soak. First of all, the fresher your dried beans are, the less necessary the soak is—but soaking will decrease the amount of time your beans cook, and you can do it while you sleep, so I say soak (especially for big beans, like coronas). To soak beans, dump them into a big pot with a tight-fitting lid, cover them with water by a few inches, pop the cover on, and leave at least six hours and up to overnight in a cool place. When you lift the lid, the water will have mostly disappeared and your beans will have grown! They should be happy and plump-looking. Ali Stafford adds a tablespoon of kosher salt to the water when she soaks, which I like—a way of adding a little flavor right at the very beginning. Once your beans have soaked, drain them, return them to the pot, and cover once again with a few inches of water.
Let’s get the cooking method out of the way while we’re talking process: I can’t seem to keep beans at a steady simmer, either accidentally boiling them (bad) or leaving them without any simmering action (also bad). You might have more nuanced stove dials than I do, but I like to avoid the whole debate and make it totally hands off: Bring the beans to a boil over high heat on the stove and boil hard for 10 minutes, then cover and remove to a 325°F oven. Cook until tender all the way through, checking the levels of liquid periodically to make sure the beans aren’t dry. (Remember, beans will absorb a lot of liquid while they cook—and these are supposed to be brothy!) There’s no way to tell you exactly how long it will take your beans to cook, since so much depends on how old your beans are and whether you’ve soaked them first. The best tip I can give you is to check your beans after 35 minutes in the oven. They’ll probably need at least an hour total (and possibly two hours or longer), but checking towards the beginning will give you a sense of what you’re in for. You are just going to have to trust your judgement and your intuition and the beans.
I love Tamar Adler’s writing on beans in An Everlasting Meal: She says that when beans are cooked through, they’ll look like little swimming fat boys, and you should be able to blow the skin off a bean (try it!). If you sample a bean and then immediately reach for another, she writes, they’re done.
Okay, now we get to talk fun stuff: add-ins! The flavor! The funk! The color! Everything that’s not a bean!
The rules for what to add to the pot at the beginning of the cooking process are similar to the rules for making broth. Briefly:
Limp vegetables are okay, but not slimy or rotten ones.
Nothing too tender (fresh herbs or tender greens), lest they go swampy. Save these guys for finishing the pot at the end. Sturdier herbs, like rosemary and thyme, are A-ok, though, as are the stems of any herbs at all.
Definitely pour in a few luscious glugs of wine, red or white, and/or olive oil.
Add lots of aromatics—any and all alliums you have, celery, carrots, ginger, and especially fennel, which seems to go particularly well with beans. Pop a whole head (yes, the whole thing!), sliced right down its belly so you have two giant garlicky halves smiling up at you.
Add bacon (or pancetta! or sausage!) if you want. In the pot you want to cook your beans in, cook one of these fatty meaty things over medium heat. You want there to be a good amount of fat rendering off without coloring the meat much. When there’s about 2 tablespoons of meat, go ahead and add everything else—beans, aromatics, etc.—to the pot.
For a meaty-yet-meatless option, toss in mushrooms or a Parmesan rind or both.
Whole spices—star anise! cinnamon sticks! cumin or fennel or coriander or mustard seeds! bay leaves!—are a definite go.
Chiles love beans, beans love chiles. Add dry whole chiles (toasted in a dry pan to wake them up, if you'd like), a fat pinch of chile flakes, or a whole fresh chile split down the middle. Or turn to canned chiles: I am in love with chipotles en adobo, and one of those plus a few spoonfuls of the adobo sauce would lend a lot of oomph to a pot of beans.
Anchovies? Capers? Yes! Be sparing.
You’ll want to top all these good things with liquid to cook them in, and it can just be water—but it could also be broth of any kind. Or you could add a big can of tomatoes, or a pound of chopped fresh ones. Or a can of coconut milk (mmm). Or a cup of coffee. Or stir some harissa or gochujang or miso paste into the water.
Once your beans are cooked (remember, sample as you go), you’ll probably want to correct the seasoning. The fun part about cooking beans from scratch is that you can really throw in anything you want—but it can be hard to guess how exactly all those flavors will take root in the beans and the broth themselves. First, fish out all the bits you won’t want to bite into: bay leaves, large whole spices, that Parm rind, scraggly herb stems. Then taste the broth and salt to taste, or brighten it with a flash of citrus juice or vinegar. For a silky-feeling sauce, whisk an egg yolk with a splash of hot broth in a small bowl, then whisk it gradually back into the bean pot. Finish with chopped greens—kale or spinach or chard, which will wilt in the hot liquid—and herbs.
You know what to do now, right? You know.
Too many beans to eat at once? I like to freeze them in sandwich-sized baggies, which will thaw in a blink. They’re good for up to three or so months, and it’s like having an insurance policy against a bare pantry.
What's your favorite way to enjoy beans? Let us know in the comments!