Finding Simple Winter Comfort in White Beans - No. 87
It’s like wrapping yourself in a favorite blanket
I NEVER APPRECIATED HOW VERSATILE WHITE BEANS could be until I got out of my own kitchen.
My favorite beans - Great Northerns, ironically, since they are so popular in the South - were slow-simmered with smoked ham and served with fried corn cakes at a restaurant called Nero’s Cactus Canyon. It sounds like and it really looked like something out of a cheesy Western, and today an Orvis store stands in its place. But back then, Nero’s white beans were so good people drove many miles to come to Nashville to eat them.
My mother was able to copycat that recipe at home. I’d learn to cook white beans that way, too, simmered down with a piece of ham, onion, and black pepper.
But once I traveled to Tuscany and southern France and saw how white beans played so well with roasted lamb, how they could be seasoned with garlic and rosemary and sprinkled with Parm, and how they could be spooned over pasta and anointed with the best olive oil, well, my eyes widened.
Because white beans — whether you use Great Northern, smaller navy beans, or larger cannellini — offer versatility. They’re not fancy, but they can be.
Add more liquid to the bean pot and you get brothy beans to slurp from a spoon out of a soup bowl. Add less, and you’ve got thicker, creamier beans with all the comfort of mac and cheese.
Beans and the unavoidable “f” word
I grew up in a house full of girls. Beans and their gassiness wasn’t a topic of conversation until I had a son. Boys think nothing of talking about it. And I recall my son and husband cracking up as they watched Blazing Saddles more than one time.
It’s not so much the fault of the cook as it is the bean’s natural starch.
That’s what Harold McGee writes in his excellent book “On Food and Cooking,” which explores the science of cooking. When the first space flights were planned, NASA researchers were not only worried about the astronauts experiencing flatulence and the discomfort that might ensue, but the fact that their gas — actually three types including methane, hydrogen, and hydrogen sulfide — could be potentially toxic and cause them to asphyxiate themselves.
“So the word went out across the land,” says McGee. “Study flatulence.”
But with so many variables affecting how much gas one person might produce, years went by with the problem unsolved, and by 1968 the verdict was to select astronauts who didn’t pass gas.
NASA researchers revealed that beans had a starch the digestive system just couldn’t handle.
Today, anyone who knows a hill of beans about cooking beans—excuse the pun —tells you to drain and rinse canned beans before adding to a recipe. And if using dried, don’t cook your beans in the same water you soak them in. And soak them first. Yes, be especially wary of slow-cooker recipes that begin with dried bean.
Here’s the best way to cook dried white beans
I first do a quick-ish soak with boiling water: Sort through the beans to remove any broken ones or things that are not beans (!) then dump them into a large mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over them to cover by an inch. I let them soak for an hour, soaking up as much liquid as possible, and then I refresh with more boiling water to let them soak further, for at least 30 minutes. Then I pour off all the liquid that remains and begin the recipe.
This warm soak not only draws out the starch but it acts as a steam bath for those beans and plumps them up and tenderizes them. I believe it results in sweeter, creamier beans, too.
And I never, ever begin a pot of beans with salt or acidic ingredients like tomato or vinegar, which toughen them. You can season beans once they’re tender to the bite. You’ve got plenty of time for seasoning.
For the most basic but also most delicious beans, place the soaked beans in a big pot or Dutch oven with chopped onion, bay leaf, and black pepper. Add some parsley if you have it. Cover with water, vegetable, or chicken stock. Always keep 2 to 3 inches of water or stock in the pot as the beans simmer if you want to wind up with brothy beans. Drizzle with olive oil.
Turn the heat to high, and when the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and let cook 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until tender. Sample the beans halfway through cooking and if they are tender, you can add salt to taste. For a nice touch, and a bit more complex flavor, saute the onion and carrot in olive oil until golden, and then add the beans, liquid and aromatics. It’s an extra step but adds body and flavor.
If you like beans that are creamy like mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, keep about an inch of liquid over the beans as they cook, and once they are cooked, remove the lid of the pot and continue simmering to let the juices cook down and evaporate slightly.
Come on, now let’s dress them up
Pasta a fagioli: Spoon the brothy cooked beans over cooked pasta and top with chopped fresh tomatoes, pesto if you have it, good Parm, and olive oil.
French white beans and rosemary: Sort of a hybrid between brothy and creamy beans in consistency. Tuck a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary in the cooking pot. Season with lots of ground black pepper. Serve with cheesy polenta or grits to the side. Or with grilled lamb or tuna steaks.
And then, there’s always white bean chili. Don’t worry if you didn’t make it for last Sunday’s Super Bowl. You’ve got the rest of winter and into spring to savor it. Until we no longer need blankets and white beans to keep us cozy.
Missy's White Bean Chili
What I love about cooking and repeating recipes through the years is that you can adapt them to suit your changing tastes and family dynamics. That's how I cook. And that's how I cook white chili. When my children were young and running mad through the kitchen, I relied on the last-minute ease of canned white beans and pre-cooked chicken. But these days as an empty-nester, I've got more time to cook the beans from scratch and often stash the cooked beans in the freezer ready to thaw for soups and chilis. Then I'll cook my own bone-in chicken breasts, use the broth in the chili recipe and if I find some exotic new pepper, toss it in the pot. I've topped white chili with slivers of radishes or shredded sharp cheddar. And I'd be happy to pile a salad of garnish on top - arugula, cilantro, tomatoes, avocado, red onion, squeeze of lime juice, drizzle of olive oil, that kind of magic. This recipe comes from my friend Missy Myers.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 45 to 50 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 ribs celery, chopped, if desired
1 can (about 4.5 ounces) chopped green chilies, undrained OR 1/2 cup finely chopped red, yellow or green peppers of your choice
4 cups chopped, cooked chicken (you cook the chicken or shredded rotisserie chicken)
6 cups soaked dried white beans or canned white beans
Water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock to cover (about 8 cups if using dried beans and about 6 cups if using canned)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon, or more to taste, cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Shredded cheese, such as Cheddar, Monterey Jack or a crumbled queso fresco
Chopped avocado or guacamole
1. Place the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery, if using, and peppers if using fresh. Cook, stirring, until the veggies soften, 3 to 4 minutes. If using canned peppers, stir them and their liquid in now. Remove from the heat.
2. Add the chicken and beans, and pour in water or stock to cover. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, and cayenne pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let the chili simmer until it thickens, 45 minutes to 1 hour if using canned beans, and 1 3/4 hours if using dried.
3. Taste the chili for seasoning, adding salt and pepper, and more cumin if needed. If you need to reduce the amount of liquid in the pot, uncover, and let it simmer over low until gently thickened. Or, if you need to add more liquid to the dried beans as they cook, do so in increments so you don’t add too much liquid at one time. Ladle into bowls and serve with toppings.
This Thursday for Subscribers ❤️
Bean love continues! And a great recipe that comes with an apology: The Best-Ever Hummus. Once you make this hummus—and there are a few hummus rules, so be prepared—you will never buy it again. And neither will your friends. They’ll expect you to make it and bring it! My apologies!
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive Thursday posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Have a great week!