Archive for February, 2009

Magic beans

[Method: Soaking dried beans]

About once a week Quinn (my six-year-old) asks me who she is, the lady on the wall. “I don’t know,” I tell her. “But she’s pretty,” Quinn replies, as if by her beauty we would know what to call her.


She is incredibly pretty, La Conchita*: eyelashes black and thick, a braid barely bronzed swept over her shoulder, her mouth set in a serene red line. You can tell she’s thinking about something, and I know what it is:


Yes, this is the woman who brought me my beans, or at least accompanied them on their journey from California, the big state next door. She saw that they arrived safely in their snug plastic packaging, all six varieties, plus some popping corn for good measure.

It’s like she’s my personal patron saint of beans.

You know that beans are back, right? It’s the cheerless economy and heirloom food movement two-for-one that’s suddenly put borlottis and Christmas limas center plate. Vegetarians and legume-lovers everywhere are smiling.

Still, the debate simmers, and not just in my head, over which is better: canned or dried?


I’ve always had my flip-flops planted firmly in the canned camp, and I refuse to be embarrassed by this. I was raised to have good morals and eat beans from a can, and I regret neither.

Which isn’t to say that my mom didn’t give a go or two with dried beans. She did, but reported that for all her soaking methods, she could never get the beans to budge much from their hard place. Until last year I’d never even tried using dried beans, and I didn’t think there could be a whole lot of difference in terms of taste. Nutritionally speaking, dried and canned are on the same plane. Canned just took way less time and forethought.

But then I got hold of my cherished local teparies last year. After a few failed attempts (that my family gamely crunched through), I found a soaking method that works. Turns out freshness counts with dried beans; old beans don’t give themselves over to softness quite as readily.

With a no-fail soak method in my repertoire, I was ready to try some of the unusual (to me) varieties from Rancho Gordo.

Little did I know the beans’ guardian would be traveling with them to find her place on my kitchen wall. We’re glad to have her around.

Quick-Soaking Beans, the Mark Bittman way

from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

1 lb dried beans, washed and picked over
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by 2 to 3 inches. Bring to a boil and boil uncovered for 2 minutes. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid. Turn off the heat and let beans soak for about 2 hours.

Taste a bean for tenderness. If it’s tender, add a large pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper. Make sure beans are covered with about an inch of the soaking water. If not, add water. If beans are still raw, don’t add salt yet and cover with 2 inches of water.

Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle bubble. Cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, checking for doneness every 10 to 15 minutes and adding water as necessary. If you didn’t add salt in the previous step, add it when beans are turning tender. Stop cooking when beans are done to your taste. Adjust seasoning.

Use immediately in any recipe application of your choice (you have choices!). Beans can be stored up to a week in the fridge, covered, with their cooking liquid (add a splash of white vinegar or lemon juice) or in the freezer for up to six months.

* ‘La  Conchita’ is the name of the painting, by Jesus Helguera.  I Googled it to learn that it means ‘little shell,’ but is also the name of a community near Santa Barbara, California.


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Waiting list

I got an e-mail from today, asking me if I’d like to keep my order open for Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.


Well, yeah. The sheer fact that the cookbook is hard to come by makes me want it even more. It’s like this book has become my Toyota Prius, my Hermès Kelly handbag — and it ought to be far more accessible than a car or a purse (that costs as much as the car).

I dropped Ottolenghi in my cart during one of those taken-by-impulse moments, after learning about it on (where else?) someone’s food blog. Maybe it’s the Ottolenghi philosophy that brings together tradition and reinvention, vibrance and simplicity, that has me convinced. Or the blurred front cover, the shot-in-motion moment of food created, food served.

I have yet to stand in front of my counter and peruse each page, each careful photograph of food sculpture, those heaps of edible invention poised on platters. I’ve never (not yet) been to London, so I’ve never (not yet) had the opportunity of visiting an Ottolenghi branch in Islington or Notting Hill. Oh, but I will. It might take some waiting — these things do — but I will.

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Eggs for dinner

[Recipe: Baked Eggs]

Oscar Wilde said it first, and we certainly hold the philosophy dear at my house: “An egg is always an adventure; the next one may be different.”


The ways of preparing eggs seem infinite, even beyond the typical fry/scramble/poach/boil (although, for Quinn, an egg well scrambled is the only egg worth putting her toast down for).

The egg’s a marvel, really, showing off its various textures and dimensions depending on how it’s cooked; the way it fluffs up or spreads itself thin; its very makeup, egg and yolk, individually distinct but harmonious.

And if you give it proper respect, an egg will do just about anything you want it to: bind or leaven, thicken or emulsify.

Or it can just be breakfast.


And sometimes a lovely dinner. That’s when, around here, eggs get to demonstrate their impressive talent of sidling up to almost anything — plant or animal  — and giving it that melt-in-your-mouth quality.

Which is precisely what happens when you make baked eggs. Dishes like this go over well in my house, because they are custom built to the exacting specifications of each diner. I may not do the short-order cook thing, but I have no problem skipping the tomatoes for Emmie while doling out extra for Quinn. It’s all part of the adventure.

Baked Eggs

Makes 4 servings
adapted from Saveur

Firm whites, with yolks like velvet, joined with whatever sounds good in the moment. What more could you ask from an egg?

Ingredients: 8 large eggs, milk, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, plus whatever you uncover in the fridge: sliced tomatoes, cooked spinach, cooked bacon, smoked salmon, grated or crumbled cheese, chopped herbs (thyme, basil and parsley are all good)

Heat oven to broil and place rack 10″ from heat. Grease 4 8-oz gratin dishes. Place vegetables in the bottom of each dish (or in the dishes that will be served to those who want them). Make two wells in the center of each vegetable pile and crack the eggs into the wells. Pour 1 tbsp. milk into each dish. Top dishes with other ingredients: chopped bacon or smoked salmon, herbs, cheeses. Finish with salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer dishes to the oven rack and broil until the cheese is golden brown, the egg whites are set and the yolks are still a bit soft, about 5 to 8 minutes.

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Winter’s plenty

I was shopping yesterday — trying on pants, trying to do my miniscule part to stimulate the economy — when I overheard some good old-fashioned winter bashing.


It’s hard not to eavesdrop in dressing rooms, and tougher still when just one cabin over the inhabitant (fellow economy stimulator) and her husband are debating the merits of flared vs. bootleg. The salesclerk came in to check on their progress, and, as conversations inevitably do, the talk turned to the weather.

“Oh, isn’t it such a nice day, blahblahblah,” they were saying, hinting at the 81 degree temperature high. They swapped places of origin (Husband: Minnesota; Salesclerk: Wisconsin) and made that all-too-often heard refrain around these “dry heat” parts: “This is why we live here,” chuckle, chuckle. “Who needs to shovel snow?” heh heh.

Ok, so I will concede that winter can be tough. Cold and wet are not for everybody. Frigid and icy can get old pretty fast.

But — and this is ‘but’ of experience, because I have lived in those cold/wet/frigid/icy winters and would go back in a heartbeat — winter is as worthy a season as any. I won’t enumerate for you the plentiful reasons I’m a winter junkie. But I would like to remind Mr. & Mrs. Shopper of yesterday of just one: the food.


If it weren’t for winter, we wouldn’t have all that winter squash. Or salsify and parsnips. Or mustard greens and radicchio. And Brussels sprouts — not my favorite by a long shot, but some people seem to really dig them.

Furthermore, if it weren’t for winter, we’d hardly want to simmer those hearty root vegetables for a soup. We wouldn’t have delicate, creamy leeks to saute. Or be able to dump some roasted, cubed butternut into a vegetarian chili.

Don’t forget the citrus: the grapefruit and tangelos we’ve been sustaining ourselves with around here are reason alone to love winter. Not to mention things like oysters.

So, I say enough with the winter bashing. Just go buy a little chard, the kind with the red stems, and marvel at the intersection of red veins and green leafiness. Then trim out the stems, stack the leaves, roll them up, and cut them crosswise into ribbons.

Toss them in a medium saucepan (in which you’ve just sauteed a couple cloves of garlic, minced, some chopped shallot, a tablespoon of tomato paste — in anticipation of summer — along with some salt and pepper).

Then watch — stirring often — as the pile of bright green sinks into a shiny, dark, wilted, fragrant tangle.

And then tell me why winter’s so terrible.

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