With Anson Mills supplying heritage grains, I was delighted to discover that Rancho Gordo is now sourcing heirloom beans. I realize that beans may not be in everyone’s wheelhouse, but there are few things that taste better than a well-seasoned and a well-cooked bean.
Like most things, there is a secret to cooking beans properly, but most people never bother to learn. Fortunately, the mother of a Spanish friend from Asturias taught me how to cook their regional dish, Fabada Asturiana. Now, Fabada is basically a bean stew made from the more widely known fava bean and some serious meats: blood sausage, chorizo, a ham hock and pork belly (there are variations). While I will not entertain you with how this bean stew was cooked, it is interesting to note that the beans were not stirred until about 30 minutes before serving.
The reason is quite simple: You don’t want to bruise or break the skin of the beans since they tend to turn mushy when cooked much longer. Some cooks seem to think that beans should be cooked like pasta – al dente – but that is simply not the case. In my mind, the perfectly cooked bean has its casing or skin intact yet the interior remains soft and malleable.
I strongly recommend soaking the beans for at least four hours and overnight if possible. Cook slowly – without stirring – and sample occasionally to get the right consistency. The size of the bean often determines how long the bean needs to cook.
We were thrilled to learn about Rancho Gordo beans from a dear friend. Indeed, many of the heirloom beans are originally from Mexico and they pack a lot of flavor on their own. Personally, I prefer the taste of the beans after they have been allowed to settle and re-heated the next day. Based on recommendations from fellow gourmands, we opted for the following varieties of beans from Rancho Gordo:
Rather than combining the beans with meats, we decided to use the cooking instructions from Rancho Gordo to prepare a simple bean dish. In the image shown below, we used the Mayocoba bean.
There is not one single method of cooking beans. At its most basic, you want to simmer the pot until the beans are soft. Soaking can speed up the process and vegetables or stock will make them more flavorful. It’s really that simple. There’s all kinds of fine tuning and variables, but basically, this is it.
Normally on a bean cooking day (which frankly is everyday at Rancho Gordo), I put the beans to soak in the morning, after rinsing in lots of cool water and checking for small debris. I cover the beans by about an inch or so. If you haven’t soaked, don’t fret. Go ahead and cook them, knowing it will take a bit longer.
Heirloom and heritage varieties don’t need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh, which I’d define as within two years. You can use a ham bone, chicken stock or as I prefer, simply a few savory vegetables. A classic mirepoix is a mix of onion, celery and carrot diced fine and sautéed in some kind of fat, often olive oil. A crushed clove of garlic doesn’t hurt. If I’m cooking Mexican or Southwestern, I will sauté just onion and garlic in mild bacon drippings or even freshly rendered lard.
Add the beans and their soaking water to a large pot. You have been told before to change the water and rinse the beans. The thinking now is that vitamins and flavor can leech out of the beans into the soaking water you are throwing down the sink. There is conflicting scientific evidence that changing the water cuts down on the gas. If you want to, do it. If it seems unnecessary, don’t.
If you’ve soaked them, the beans will have expanded, so make sure they are still covered by at least an inch, maybe a bit more. Add the sautéed vegetables and give a good stir. Raise your heat to medium high and bring to a hard boil. Keep the beans at a boil for about ten to fifteen minutes. After so many years, I think this is the moment that really matters. You have to give them a good hard boil to let them know you’re the boss and then reduce them to a gentle simmer, before covering. I like to see how low I can go and still get the occasional simmering bubble. Open and close the lid, or keep it ajar to help control the heat and allow evaporation. The bean broth will be superior if it’s had a chance to breathe and evaporate a little.
When the beans are almost ready, the aroma will be heady. They won’t smell so much like the vegetables you’ve cooked but the beans themselves. At this point, I’d go ahead and salt them. Go easy as it takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt. If you want to add tomatoes or acids like lime or vinegar, wait until the beans are cooked through.
If the bean water starts to get low, always add hot water from a tea kettle. Many believe that cold water added to cooking beans will harden them. At the very least, it will make the cooking take that much longer to bring them back to a simmer. We don’t recommend using hot tap water, straight from a water heater. Better to heat the tap water in a tea kettle or pan first.