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The bean and me

Learning to love them turns out to be easy, once you understand them.

January 29, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

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 great deal.

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 bean-lover.

"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 beans.

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 green flageolet.

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.

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