Magic Beans

Magic Beans

Growers Anthony and Carol Boutard make the case for small-batch varieties that are fresh and more flavorful

The Oregonian, Tuesday, February 21, 2006

LESLIE COLE GASTON — It takes Anthony and Carol Boutard about a minute of polite conversation before they start busting myths about dried beans. First and most egregious of the lot: A bean is a bean, no matter how long it’s been on the shelf. Carol, one half of the duo behind Ayers Creek Farm, politely squashes that assumption this way: “A dead bean” she says, “is dead food.”

And if you think all types of dried beans are more or less equal, take a walk in the Boutards’ mud-crusted boots. Here in Gaston, where Bald Peak gives way to rolling fields, more than a dozen varieties will grow this season on a four-acre slice of their land. And each deserves its own stage.

Black Basque are inky with a barely perceptible note of chocolate. French Tarbais, like giant lima beans, stew without surrendering their meaty texture in crocks of cassoulet. And silky-smooth Zolfino, a tiny white sulfur bean, is so fruity and sweet Anthony occasionally drinks its cooking water.

The Boutards, New Englanders who came to farming eight years ago, are among a handful of farmers on the West Coast growing small-batch dried beans. The unusual varieties they grow organically have nearly vanished from commercial farms, replaced by beans bred to withstand the rigors of machine harvesting.

Most of theirs are pole beans, which are devilishly toilsome to grow. Some are grown for fresh shelling, some are hybrids and a good number — but not all — are heirloom.

Tarbais, from the Basque region of France, started with a request (and seeds) from a Portland chef. Borlotto Lamon is the speckled king of Italy’s prized borlotti beans. China Yellow, an uncommon old American variety, is distinguished by its slightly nutty flavor and thin green eye, a roundish marking where the bean attaches to the pod.

This year, they have high hopes for Aunt Jean’s Pole Bean, a brick-red beauty they will sink into the soil in May and drench with kelp and other fertilizer as the tendrils twine up six feet of trellis.

But plenty of cute-sounding names come and go here. The also-rans “just taste OK,” says Anthony, with a trace of a Boston accent. “I’ll sell them (for a season). But I won’t plant them again.”

Keepers have one thing in common: flavor.

Pickers pull them off the soaring vines in October, strip the papery pods, then clean the partially dried beans of stones and chaff with a machine that fits on the Boutards’ dining room table.

When the beans finish drying on racks, Carol sorts and bags them by hand. That’s the only way to spot imperfect beans, those that are slightly wrinkled, broken or dark from mildew, all of which affect flavor.

“It seems ridiculous,” she says, pushing fingers through a tray of glistening Black Basque. “But it’s amazing what you can catch if you take a long time to do it.”

For their extra care and labor, plus the novelty and the promise of flavor, they can charge a premium. A 1-pound bag of any variety sells for $5 at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, where the Boutards bring dried beans on alternate Sundays November through February.

If customers blanch at the price — at least twice as much as an equal amount of supermarket beans — the Boutards, both lifelong food gardeners, turn on their sales pitch.

It matters, Anthony says, where and how they’re grown. It matters which bean you choose for which dish. And if you want them creamy and fragrant, they shouldn’t be stale.

Portland chefs agree. Pascal Sauton buys 200 pounds of the Tarbais each November to make cassoulet at his downtown restaurant, Carafe. “When they run out,” he says, “I take the cassoulet off the menu.”

But these boutique beans — they’re beans, after all — easily adapt to home cooking.

Anthony’s favorites are the small white varieties, with delicate, thin skins and a hint of sweetness.

Carol loves the soldier bean, a big, meaty American variety, because it grabs the smoky essence of ham hocks, or any seasoning it’s cooked with. “It’s like a great perfume that doesn’t open up until 15 minutes later,” she says.

“If you start just eating the bean plain, that’s when you begin to know them,” Anthony says. When using beans in soups or pasta sauces, he recommends fully cooking the beans separately, then mixing them into the finished dish. This technique, he explains, helps retain the flavor of the beans.

Flavor is their filter not just for beans, but for every crop on their 144-acre farm.

Fall and winter bring Italian chicories, parsnips and “hideously ugly” carrots that, Carol says, trump every other variety she’s eaten.

Mere mention of their summer melons, a Charentais called Petit Gris, brings audible sighs from chefs. Thornless blackberries, their main crop, show up in July, raining juice down to the elbows of anyone who grabs a handful.

Now the couple, both in their 50s, are curators of corn, rare varieties that they dry, cure and grind into artisanal cornmeal and grits.

As for the dried beans, the Boutards will sell their last bags soon, which at Ayers Creek is the way it should be.

They’ll be back again next November. When they’re fresh.

Ayers Creek Farm’s dried beans are available for one more Sunday (Feb. 26) at the Hillsdale Farmers Market in Southwest Portland, next to Wilson High School. Market hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Boutique dried beans also are sold online; check The Bean Bag (www.beanbag.net), and Rancho Gordo (www.ranchogordo.com).

Leslie Cole: 503-294-4069; lesliecole@news.oregonian.com

Take care with salt and soaking for a better batch of beans

Cook up a pot to store in the refrigerator to serve as the base for many great, tasty dishes

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

– Leslie Cole

Sure, beans are simple food. But cooking them with care makes them all the better. To soak or not to soak? The jury’s still out on this one, but we know that soaking beans shortens their cooking time and reduces the amount of water needed to cook them. In some cases, it keeps the skins from bursting before the beans get tender.

Soaking and draining the beans — or quick-soaking them for an hour in water brought to a boil — also lessens the gastric effects caused by beans because it leaches out some of the soluble sugars. Really fresh dried beans need no soaking, but they benefit (and so do you) from boiling, draining, then replenishing cooking water with fresh.

To salt or not to salt? Beans need salt for flavor, but many venerable cooks say to hold off on adding it until late in cooking because salt toughens the skins. Shirley O. Corriher, author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking,” says when you add salt makes no difference — unless you start with really old beans, which salt can actually help tenderize.

“What people don’t realize is, the reason their beans aren’t getting soft after two hours is they’re old beans. So they need to try to find as fresh a dried bean as they can.”

We say, better to start with fresh beans and salt them as you please. Italian cooking guru Marcella Hazan agrees: She spent a lifetime following the established wait-to-salt notion, but now she salts even the beans’ soaking water, saying that it has no ill effect on the skins, and improves their taste. If you’re a “late salter,” note this tip: Taste the cooking water to adjust seasoning, not the beans, which may take a while to absorb it.

Sweetening the pot: Sugar prevents the breakdown of pectic substances, or the glue between the cells, Corriher says, which is why syrupy Boston baked beans don’t dissolve into mush after hours in the oven and a day or two in the fridge. Corriher’s advice: If you want to control the mush factor on any bean, cook them until they’re as soft as you want them, then add a bit of sugar.

Ginger magic: Take a tip from savvy Indian cooks: A few tablespoons of minced ginger tenderizes lentils, and presumably all dried beans, thanks to an enzyme that softens proteins. Want creamier beans? Stir in a handful of spinach leaves as they cook, Corriher says, which gives them a lovely, soft mouth feel.

Soak now, cook later: Beans may be soaked two or three days before cooking. After soaking, drain, rinse, pat dry in a kitchen towel and store in a sealed plastic bag or lidded container in the refrigerator.

Frozen assets: Cooked beans may be frozen in small batches to add to pasta sauces or soups, to puree with seasonings as a topping for crostini, or to toss with greens and eat as a side dish. Freeze in self-sealing plastic bags, and thaw overnight in the refrigerator or by placing the sealed bag in a bowl of cold water.

Fabulous flavorings: Good-quality scratch-cooked beans need little more than a sprinkling of salt and a drizzle of nice olive oil. If you have more time, toss cooked cannellinis in a hot pan with olive oil, minced garlic and fresh herbs (rosemary or sage are good choices). For pintos, try garlic with a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and add hot sauce to taste. Add cooked beans to a stew or soup, serve alongside grilled chops, or ladle them into a pot of sauteed greens and serve with chewy bread. — Leslie Cole

Aunt Sadie’s Cuban Black Bean Soup

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

– From Sadie Colligan

Makes 8 to 10 servings

In this classic Cuban dish, beans are simmered with pork and sofrito, a savory onion-based sauce, until thick and creamy, and served over rice. For a more refined variation, force leftover soup through a sieve, thin with water and serve garnished with chopped hard-cooked egg, sour cream and a squeeze of lemon.

• 1 pound black turtle beans

• 2 smoked pork hocks

• 2 to 3 green bell peppers, chopped (divided)

• 2 large onions, chopped (divided)

• 1/4 pound salt pork or bacon

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 2 large cloves garlic, minced

• 1 8-ounce can tomato paste

• 2 teaspoons dried oregano

• 1 bay leaf, crumbled

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

• Cooked white rice

• Minced onion, for serving

• Olive oil

• Red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Soak beans in a large stockpot overnight in 10 to 12 cups of water. Do not drain. The next day add pork hocks, half of bell pepper and half of onion to beans and the soaking water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer the beans, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, until they mash easily with a fork.

Meanwhile, make sofrito: Dice and fry the salt pork until browned. Add olive oil and garlic, remaining onion and remaining bell pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Stir in tomato paste and continue cooking for a few minutes. Stir in oregano, remove from heat and set aside.

When beans are sufficiently tender, add sofrito, bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, for an additional 11/2 hours, adding more water if necessary to keep it soupy.

Remove pork hock. If you like, pull meat off the bone, chop and add meat back to soup; discard bone. Stir in sugar. With a fork or potato masher, pulverize about one-third to one-half the cooked beans, and stir to blend until soup is thick and creamy. Serve in soup bowls over a mound of white rice, garnished with minced onion, olive oil and vinegar.

– From Sadie Colligan

Basic Beans

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

– Adapted from “Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” by Judy Rodgers

Makes 2 to 3 cups

This recipe works for most types of beans, and adapts to any flavorings you choose. Soaking beans for up to 8 hours ahead of time will reduce cooking time, and is recommended unless you have very fresh dried beans such as those from Ayers Creek Farm. This recipe is a starting point: You can use more, less or different aromatic vegetables, including garlic or leeks. You can add herbs, such as fresh thyme or sage; spices, such as dried chiles or peppercorns; or a scrap of prosciutto or bacon if you want. For more character, use a little stock in place of some of the water.

• 1 cup dried beans

• 1 small carrot, peeled, split lengthwise and cut into a few chunks

• 1 small yellow onion, peeled and trimmed, leaving the root end intact, and halved

• 1 bay leaf

• Salt

• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse the beans and place in a 2-quart saucepan. Add cold water to cover by about an inch and bring to a simmer. Skim any foam. Stir, then add the carrot, onion and bay leaf. Maintaining a very gentle simmer, cook the beans uncovered until tender but not mushy, anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the variety of the bean and how dry it was. Stir occasionally early on, especially if you are cooking larger quantities, so those on the bottom are not crushed, and add water as necessary so that the beans remain just covered. To test for doneness, place a few beans and a little cooking liquid in a cup and set in the freezer for a minute to cool a bit. Taste one. If it is tender through and shows no trace of raw starchiness, pull the pan from the heat and add salt to taste, gently stirring to make sure it will be evenly absorbed. Taste the bean liquid for salt, not the beans, which will take a while to absorb it. Stir in the olive oil.

Serve immediately, alone or in salads, brothy soups or pasta dishes. Otherwise, let the beans cool in their liquid, then store, still in their liquid, covered and refrigerated for up to 4 or 5 days.

– Adapted from “Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” by Judy Rodgers

Sauteed Tuscan Kale With Garlicky White Beans

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

– Adapted from “Mediterranean Grains and Greens,” by Paula Wolfert

The Oregonian

Makes 2 to 3 servings

This heavenly yet simple combination of beans and greens makes a delicious light meal with slices of salami and other cold cuts, or a stand-alone dish served with some good bread. Tuscan kale (also known as lacinato and dinosaur kale) is the kale of choice, perfect for this special manner of cooking. If you substitute another green, simply stew it in garlic-flavored olive oil before serving with the reheated beans.

• 12 small to medium leaves Tuscan kale (4 ounces)

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish

• 3 cloves garlic, thickly sliced

• 1/2 cup cooking liquid from the beans (see accompanying recipe for Basic Beans)

• 11/2 cups cooked white beans (see accompanying recipe for Basic Beans)

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove center ribs from kale and tear each leaf into 4- or 5-inch lengths. In a large skillet with a lid heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil, gradually add kale and cook, stirring, until leaves wilt and sizzle in the hot oil, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat. Add the sliced garlic, cover and cook leaves until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the bean broth by the tablespoon, as needed, to keep the leaves from drying out.

Push the leaves to one side in the skillet; add the cooked beans, salt, pepper and enough bean liquid to keep the dish juicy. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve warm with a drizzle of good-quality olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.

– Adapted from “Mediterranean Grains and Greens,” by Paula Wolfert