Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A heady affair

Smothered beans
I complain a lot during these dreary months. Nearly everything is drab, grey, and dead. It wears on me. A girl can only eat so many plates of root vegetables, can only drag herself through so many sunless days in a season. But even so, I'd hardly say that I dislike winter. There's something to be said for bright and biting winter mornings, taking in the cold, clean air, and, better yet, for being chased inside by the wind to blankets and tea and warm things bubbling in the oven. Yes, that's what this season is really about for me: keeping the oven glowing.
Though I've gone back to eating meat, there are still few things I welcome more than an earnest pot of beans on a dark, wintery day. I like the simplicity of beans. With the day still before you, you can stir together a few handfuls with some water and salt and keep them bubbling modestly in the oven hours. You can forget them for a while, let the day unfold, and then come back to find yourself with something truly sumptuous. It's surprising sometimes just how sumptuous and satisfying a pot of beans can be. Beans in the cupboard can look so spare.
A layer of tomatoes
My favourite pot of beans this winter has been one with a tangle of greens, leeks, and chopped tomatoes. These beans aren't much to look at, admittedly, but they will surprise you. With a plate of them, you're in for spoonful after spoonful of some pretty serious umami. Prepare yourself for a heady affair.
For the first issue of Lucky Peach, Harold McGee wrote a great piece on umami and MSG. The short of it was: MSG, which occurs naturally in lots of foods, is umami and nothing that we should shy away from. In fact, it's the reason, for those of us who love tomatoes, why we love them. When I first read this last summer, I wasn't quite sure what to think. Tomatoes just didn't really scream umami to me. But with these beans, I think I finally get what McGee means. Give tomatoes, beans, and collard greens a few good hours together in the oven, and you'll see. You'll have something to savour.
Warm, wintery food

Smothered Beans
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen
Note: Greens. Collards, I know, are not as popular as Swiss chard or kale, but trust me, collards are what you want with these beans. They have a certain savour to them. Anything else will be disappointing. Beans. If, like me, you sometimes like to splurge on dried heirloom beans, this is the dish for them. Much of its final flavour depends on the beans' pot liquor, and quality beans always make for a better one. Leeks. Leeks are often rather gritty. I think the easiest way to clean them is to slit them vertically and then run them under the tap, spreading out their layers with your thumb. Cooking time. I haven't been in the habit of pre-soaking my beans lately and baked these beans for closer to three hours than one-and-a-half. The collards held up splendidly, and the flavours, I'm sure, only got better. Next time, I might let the beans soak at least a couple of hours at room temperature to give them a head start. They could have baked for longer and gotten more tender, but I was getting hungry.

1 cup dried white beans (I like Rancho Gordo's alubia blanca), sorted, soaked, and rinsed
1/4 cup dried pinto beans, sorted soaked and rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 bunch collard greens, trimmed of tough stems and sliced into 1/2-inch-wide strips
1 14-oz can of chopped tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the beans with 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Skim the foam, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
While the beans cook, warm the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leeks, garlic, oregano, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Sauté for 5 minutes, until the leeks begin to soften. Cover the Dutch oven, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
Place the collard greens in a large bowl, add the cooked leeks, and stir to combine.
Place a strainer or colander over a bowl and pour in the beans. Measure out the cooking liquid and, if needed, add enough fresh water to equal 2 cups.
Place half of the greens mixture in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Add the strained beans. Spread the remaining greens over the beans and top with the tomatoes. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt over the tomatoes and add a few grinds of pepper. Without disturbing the layers, gently pour enough of the bean water down the side of the Dutch oven to barely cover the tomatoes.
Place the Dutch oven over high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the stovetop, cover, and bake for 1 hour. Remove the cover and check the Dutch oven, adding a little more water if it is drying out. The casserole should be just slightly juicy when pressed gently with the back of a wooden spoon. Replace the cover and continue to braise for 20 to 30 more minutes, until the beans are tender and the greens and leeks have melted.
Serves 6.


  1. This looks great Katie. A type of meal I would like to eat, right now! I'm curious about that "umami" flavor thing. It's something I always hear a lot about but have yet to fully "get." Anyway, I'm itching to try this now. Also, I loved how you served it with polenta (I think). I've always wanted to try that combination of textures out--thick ragus or stewed meats/vegetables over a big pile of polenta. Ahh I'm getting hungry

  2. Thanks, Amy. When I think umami, I typically think good parmesan or soy sauce--a sort of flavour that's akin to saltiness but that goes deeper than that somehow. Flavour can be difficult to talk about!
    I'm a little crazy about polenta/grits/cornbread/corn tortillas--anything that's corn-based really, but I think the polenta really pairs well with the beans here. You need something creamy and mild to eat alongside them.

  3. This looks totatlly delicious!! I actually LOVE bean stews - like really really crave them! I have one that I originally got the recipe from the Nourishing Traditions cookbook for. Its these healthy baked beans (with strange, but very unami ingredeints like soy sauce) and it is to DIE FOR. Seriously. Ive only made them twice but Louis still refers to it as the best thing Ive ever made and all his co-workers were asking for the recipe. I need to make them again, really thinking about it. I love the idea of adding leeks though - Ive never used anything but onions but I can imagine it totally works!!

  4. Glad to have another bean-lover around, Em! I'm pretty sure that a few of the other bean recipes in The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen involve soy sauce, and there was definitely a little thing in Gourmet (right here) about stirring soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and sherry into a pot of black beans right at the end--so I'm all for it! You should post your bean recipe!

    About the leeks...there are some dishes in which I think it's a crime to use anything but leeks, but this pot of beans isn't one of them.

  5. I actually saw the recipe when you posted it, but forgot to comment, and then I wanted to make the bean stew and somehow got distracted. Ah well, I now have beans and tomatoes on hand and might make one on the weekend.
    I don't think I can find collard greens here, do you think I could use kale? Maybe add it a bit later?

  6. Lena, I think kale is probably your best bet. As for cooking times, though kale is probably a little more tender than collards, I don't see there being any harm in sticking with the cooking time as written. 275 degrees F is a pretty gentle temperature, so I don't see the kale getting overcooked. Alternatively, you could try cooking the beans on their own for more time--45 to 60 min instead of 30--before assembling everything in the pot. There's supposed to be a layer of greens on the bottom of the pot as well as beneath the tomatoes, so I'm not sure that you could get away with adding the greens later. Good luck!

  7. Do you think Swiss chard would work? (I only have that and kale on hand right now and it seems silly to go buy another green without using the chard up first, and I REALLY want to make this today!)

    1. Yes, I think chard would work--though it probably will have less presence in the final dish. Kale would probably be a better substitute. Collards are just more resilient and stand up better over long periods of cooking. If I remember correctly, Berley mentions making a more summery version of this dish with chard, fresh cranberry beans, and fresh tomatoes, and chard there would make better sense, given that fresh beans would take less time to cook. I hope that helps!