Bean and Me
Learning to love them turns out to be
easy, once you understand them
Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2003
By Emily Green, Times Staff Writer
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I've always hated beans. Black beans, cranberry beans,
kidney beans and, most especially, lima beans. I didn't
care that beans were, arguably, the world's most
important food crop. I hated them anyway, right up until
one dark and windy night about a month ago.
A succession of rainstorms were predicted for Los
Angeles. I was expecting a house guest who, given the
weather and airline schedules, might be late by hours,
or days. What to have on the stove? Nothing seemed quite
right, not roasts, not braises, certainly not grills.
Flipping through my most trusted cookbooks, I lighted on
Page 129 of "Memories of Gascony," the unutterably
wistful 1990 book about the cooking of the grandmother
of the great French chef Pierre Koffmann. There was the
perfect dish: Saucisses aux Haricots et Tomates, or,
more plainly, sausages with beans and tomatoes. In it,
what the French so pleasingly call haricots (and we call
kidney beans) are soaked, par-cooked, quickly browned in
duck fat with onions, herbs and garlic, then simmered
until tender and slowly treated to sweeteners of
carrots, an acid splash from tomatoes. In the final
stage of cooking, this silken mix is finished with the
addition of browned sausages.
There was no denying it. This was the perfect winter
dish, in spite of the beans. I had to make it. Koffmann
called for Toulouse sausages. I used Italian ones, which
gave it a pleasing dash of paprika. I served it with a
sharp green salad and a bottle of Chenin Blanc.
My guest liked Pierre Koffmann's grandmother's cooking a
A turnaround begins
So did I, so much so that I had to question my lifelong
hate-affair with beans. In the first stage of what can
now only be described as a complete turnaround, I
decided that the problem with the bean dishes that I had
encountered before Koffmann's was that they had not been
prepared with 4 ounces of duck fat. I became so pleased
with the notion, I put it to my friend Jeremy Lee, chef
at the Blue Print Cafe in London and, typical chef, a
"Beans do adore fat," he conceded. They are, after all,
seeds, little storehouses of protein and good starches
to feed baby plants, but almost entirely bereft of fat.
Even so, Jeremy maintained that beans could also shine
without fat. What they could not forgive, he argued, was
bad handling or bad cooking.
His wonder was reserved for how miraculously beans
married the astringent perfume of sage with the sweet
onion bass notes of garlic, he said. Note the steam, he
suggested, next time a pot of beans simmers with nothing
more than a bouquet garni and garlic. Try it without the
fleshy salt notes of the pork knuckle or smoky hit from
bacon. Just simmer beans and bay leaves, thyme, sage and
garlic, he said. The house will never smell sweeter.
To close his by now thoroughly supercilious bean
rhapsody, Jeremy did that impossibly foodie thing. He
played the variety card. There was a big bean-rich world
out there. I should explore it, he suggested
disdainfully, my being a bean's jump from the birthplace
of the seeds: South America.
That was it. I rang U.S. Department of Agriculture plant
geneticist George Hosfield, an adjunct professor at
Michigan State University in East Lansing. He confirmed
that the vast Phaseolus family behind the dozens of so
dried beans that most of us have encountered in our
eating lives and the thousands of others that most of us
haven't all originated in South and Central America.
Centuries ago, Portuguese and Spanish traders found
yellow beans, green beans, red beans, brown beans, black
beans, along with speckled, spotted, striped and dotted
We in the United States inherited a comparatively
limited spectrum two ways: Native Americans spread them
north through the Southwest, and European settlers
brought them from Europe, planting them east to west.
Confusingly, we call less popular varieties of both
types "heirloom," so, in bean-speak, beans with Indian
names, such as appaloosa, yellow-eyed woman or Zuni
beans, are just as heirloom as a Jackson wonder or a
There is one basic distinction. Europeans preferred the
white beans: haricots, and fava and navy beans. Today,
as trendy European chefs look for new beans, the quest
for novelty still largely takes place within the
white-bean school. According to Jeremy, the rage in the
United Kingdom is for a huge Spanish-grown white bean
with a mildly nutty flavor called the Judion. Jeremy
pays $10 a pound for them and puts them in a soup with a
garlicky, buttered parsley sauce. As he described it, I
began to salivate: what a delicious prelude to a leg of
new season lamb.
But the quest to find Judions led straight into a
nomenclature minefield. After trekking around town to
the usual gourmet shops, the first probable equivalent
that I found was a vacuum-packed Italian import called
Corona. They were big, white and certainly kissing
cousins when it came to price: $7 a pound. Then a friend
said, no, they weren't Coronas, or Judion, they were
Haricots d'Espagne. No, said another friend, they were
It took Shree Singh, a professor of plant breeding with
the University of Idaho, and a man described by
colleagues at the USDA as "a world top person" on beans
to settle the matter. Singh wagered that they were all
the same, or related beans, properly called Phaseolus
The infinite variety of beans, each with dozens of
different common names, made keeping track of them
"mind-boggling," he said. The world top person
recommended that we do as the bean industry does: "Look
at the size."
Beans, it seems, are classed in three sizes, small,
medium and large. Common names often reflect this.
Judion, it turns out, means nothing more than "big
bean." Gigandes, same thing. But back in the kitchen,
the next surprise was that, whatever you called them,
the same beans of the same size can cook differently.
Jeremy gave a cooking time of an hour and a half for his
Judions. Five and a half hours later, the Test Kitchen's
Coronas were finally done.
We had used old beans. They may have grown senile on a
gourmet shop shelf in Los Angeles, but there was no
telling their age when shopping. No picking date was
given. Jeremy's Judions, it emerged, were grown in such
small quantities that they never get a chance to age
more than a year.
So, in our next attempt, we tried the same recipe with
California-grown Gigandes. This time, Jeremy's recipe
not only worked, it worked in an hour and a half,
exactly the time given for Judion. What had been
acceptable with the long-cooked Corona was now
sensational with the local Gigandes: savory, complex and
tender. Where the Corona skins were leathery, the
Gigandes skins were silky and delicate. The cooking
liquor was just as he promised it: fragrant from the
sage and thyme, then enriched toward the end of cooking
by the sweetening addition of a carrot, leek and onion
mirepoix. Above all there was the sweet, nutty flavor of
this fabulous bean.
The moral was: Dried beans should be bought and cooked,
not bought and stored. It helps, said Hosfield, to think
of them as seeds that reach peaks of moisture on the
vine, but which start drying in the field, and keep
drying on our shelves. The older they become, the longer
they take to cook.
To explore the local supply of young, tender beans, I
went to the Web site of Phipps Country Store and Farm in
Pescadero, near Santa Cruz. Here one can order from more
than 60 types of beans grown by Tom Phipps. Phipps sent
us such fabulously colored beans that it was tempting to
tile a table with them instead of cook them.
Speckled versus spotted
But how to keep the speckled distinct from the merely
spotted, the yellow from the gold? Don't try, advised
Singh and Hosfield. Of 30 species native to the
Americas, one species alone might have 25,000 different
types. Color is not always related to taste: About a
dozen different genes that control color can fire off
willy-nilly every time a bean flower is pollinated. The
way beans look can vary on the same plant. And even
identical beans can have different names not just
country to country, but village to village and farmer to
Unhappily, much of the color fades in the pot.
But bright beans can still bring a fillip. Because they
are usually grown in small quantities and come
relatively young, they often do not require pre-soaking,
or discarding of water from pre-boiling. So the
antioxidants associated with the color will remain in
the finished dish. How many antioxidants? "About the
same as from a glass of wine," estimates Hosfield.
By now it was obvious. I didn't hate beans. I merely
hated old, badly cooked dried beans.
Paso Robles grower Barbara Spencer thinks that her beans
age in two stages, losing their first phase of freshness
after six months, then becoming notably tougher in two
years. She puts public appreciation of beans "where
potatoes were 20 years ago" when they were eaten two
ways, baked or boiled, with sour cream or butter, but
poised for a huge change.
From Idaho, world top bean expert Singh says change is
already happening. Consumption has increased in the last
20 years from less than 5 pounds per American per year
to more like 8. He points to the growing influence of
Latin Americans, the most experienced and confident bean
cooks, in improving the repertoire. Others, he adds, are
turning to beans in the quest of a low-fat diet.
Hmm. Not me. For me, it was a Frenchman's grandmother
and her 4 ounces of duck fat that threw the door open
one New Year's to the wonderful world of beans.