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The Bean Frenzy

February 15, 1996|MICHAEL ROBERTS | Roberts is author of "What's for Dinner?" and "Make-Ahead Gourmet" (William Morrow)

Beans and fiber. There's a frenzy about both at the moment. Of course, I'm not surprised that the lowly family of legumes, of which the bean is the most prominent member, is returning to popularity. After all, it is a fat-free, amino-acid rich, high-energy food. Eating beans in combination with grains produces a kind of protein that neither can supply alone.

From a strictly culinary point of view, beans have a terrific texture and they soak up the flavor of whatever they're cooked with. Beans are at the core of most of the world's cuisines, especially in Mediterranean Europe and are the base of some of the most beloved dishes in the repertoire--cassoulet from France, pasta e fagioli and minestrone from Italy, ollas and cocidos from Spain. And, of course, there's our own franks and beans.

Dishes based on beans are endearing, especially at this time of year--steamy stews, cooked long and slow, the starch from the beans bleeding into the liquid to create a lightly thickened, creamy-textured sauce.

Bean lovers know they should start a dish with either fresh or dried beans--not canned. Add only enough water to cover the beans and add more as necessary. A good bean "gravy" is the secret to the success of all bean dishes. And remember that the amount of time it takes for dried beans to cook varies from 1 1/2 to nearly 3 to 4 hours, depending on the dryness of the bean.

Casseroles and stews based on beans are real kitchen cupboard fare; using common sense as your guide, you can throw in any variety of ingredients from the pantry or fridge. You can keep it simple, adding only a slab of bacon or some sausage, or you can make a stupendous cassoulet with any combination of lamb, pork, duck or goose and sausages. There are no authentic versions to these peasant dishes, only an authentic spirit. So, improvise, improvise, improvise.

Beans are so substantial that you can create vegetarian dishes around them without fear of an incomplete main course. In fact, I'm especially fond of combining beans with other starches--rice and pasta mostly--to create a casserole that's rib-sticking good, yet low in fat and high in fiber.

CASSOULET

1 small duck, cut into 8 serving pieces

12 black peppercorns

2 sprigs thyme

4 bay leaves

1 small sprig rosemary

1/2 pound cubed pork stew meat

1/2 pound cubed lamb stew meat

2 medium onions, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 pound white navy beans

1/4 pound slab of bacon, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced garlic

4 cups water

1/2 pound spicy pork sausage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Salt

Place duck pieces in heavy pot over medium heat and cook on both sides to render some of fat, about 15 minutes total. Remove duck and set aside.

Tie peppercorns, thyme, bay leaves and rosemary in cheesecloth to make herb bag. Set aside.

Increase heat to high and add pork. Cook, stirring, until well browned. Remove pork from pot and set aside. Repeat with lamb cubes. Remove and set aside.

Pour off and discard fat, leaving about 3 tablespoons in pot. Lower heat to medium. Add onions and cook, stirring, until onions are softened, about 7 minutes.

Add beans to pot along with bacon, garlic and herb bag. Return duck, pork and lamb to pot. Pour in 4 cups water.

Cover and bake in oven at 300 degrees 2 hours. Add sausage and salt to taste. Cover and bake 1 hour longer. Remove herb bag before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

PASTA E FAGIOLI

2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for garnish

1 celery stalk, finely minced (about 1/2 cup)

1 small carrot, finely minced (about 1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

6 cups vegetable or chicken broth

3/4 cup dried flageolet or cannellini beans

4 sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 tablespoon dried

4 plum tomatoes

3/4 cup uncooked elbow macaroni

3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

1 small onion, finely minced (about 1/2 cup)

Freshly ground pepper

A perfectly simple green salad is all that is needed with this dish to make you very, very happy.

Heat olive oil in Dutch oven or heavy ovenproof pan over medium heat. Add celery, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Add broth, beans and marjoram. Cover and bring to boil. Transfer pan to oven and bake, covered, at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours or until beans are tender.

Meanwhile, using small paring knife, cut off tip and stem of each tomatoes. Remove seeds and core, leaving only firm, outer pulp. Slice 1 side of tomato and place tomato flat on work surface. Cut into 1/4-inch lengthwise strips. Pile up strips and cut across into 1/4-inch pieces. Reserve on plate until needed.

Add macaroni to casserole. Return to oven and bake, covered, 25 minutes longer or until pasta is tender. Remove fresh herb sprigs and add tomatoes. Transfer to large tureen or divide among individual soup bowls. Offer grated cheese, minced onion, pepper and olive oil as garnishes at table.

Makes 6 servings.

FRANKS AND BAKED BEANS

3 cups (1 1/2 pounds) dried white beans

1/2 cup molasses

2 tablespoons dry mustard

1/2 cup catsup

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 ham hocks

Water

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

20 frankfurters

Place beans in heavy lidded ovenproof casserole and add molasses, mustard, catsup, cloves and pepper and mix well. Add ham hocks and enough water to cover beans by 2 inches.

Bake in oven, covered, at 275 degrees 2 hours. Add salt and more water if beans are getting too dry. Return to oven and continue to bake another 6 hours. Check beans every hour or so, adding more water if necessary.

About 45 minutes before serving, cut frankfurters into 3/4-inch rounds and add to beans. Bake 45 minutes.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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