Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
The bean is not one of the aristocrats of the food world. It’s a worker, a foot soldier, doing a valuable job in its unglamorous way. It’s nutritious, satisfying and easy to use.
So what exactly is a bean? According to the dictionaries, it is a seed that grows in a pod. That’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Seeds are what enable a plant to reproduce, and usually it’s the fruit in which they come that we’re interested in. But in this case, we rarely eat the actual pods (green beans, runner beans etc. being obvious exceptions. With most beans, it is them that we eat, and therefore their reproductive function is purely to make more of themselves. Almost a selfish existence, you might say.
Be that as it may, there are plenty of ways to eat beans, and we’re going to look at just a few.
Chilli con carne is an obvious one, the red kidney beans somehow perfectly suited to being cooked with minced beef, onions and chilli powder or fresh chillies. We’ve featured that already, many months ago, but you can still find the recipe on this site.
Black beans have appeared here twice, once with the Venezuelan corn breads, arepas, and again as part of an Aztec salad – so that’s once hot and once cold, which emphasizes the bean’s versatility. If you buy them dried, they will need to be soaked and cooked, but that’s hardly rocket science, and most of them come pre-cooked in cans anyway.
I’m particularly fond of black-eyed beans, which work well in stews or even mashed up and fried with onions and a few herbs, a bit like fish cakes, but can also be eaten cold as part of a bean salad.
In Africa the brown bean is popular because it’s cheap, versatile and easy, which is what beans in general are all about.
And then there are haricot beans, known in some countries as navy beans.
The national dish where I come from is called beanjar, and it’s nothing more than a bean stew with some cheap meat cooked in it. There are variations of this all over the world, but Guernsey Bean jar is as good as any, so here is how you do it.
1 pigs trotter (or some other very cheap meat)
1lb haricot beans
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
2 pints beef stock
Since this is going to be cooking for a long time, use dried beans, because precooked ones can become too mushy. Soak the dried beans overnight.
Put all the ingredients in a large earthenware pot or casserole dish.
Cook it in the oven on a low-medium heat for a long time – several hours.
If that sounds a bit unscientific, consider this: my grandma lived opposite a bakery and she, like many women in the area, had an arrangement with the bakers. Since the ovens in which the bread was baked were always hot but not always in use, the women would take their bean jars there in the evening, to be put in the oven until it was time to start making bread. When the women went back in the morning to collect their pots, the beans, meat and stock had been cuddling all night and had melded into a delicious meal for the family.
Some people use butter beans, 50-50 with the haricots. Black-eyed beans would also do the job. As stated in the recipe, although a pig’s trotter is traditional, some other humble cut would also work: shin of beef, even cowheel (although you might not get a lot of meat to eat, just flavour).