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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Farmer's Market Redux

Pinch me. Because there are literally moments when I can't believe I have found myself in a place like this. It is the very beginning of August and heirloom tomato season is in full swing here in Northern California. Last Saturday's visit to the local farmers market yielded the picturesque basket of goodies above, but also a supremely exciting moment for this food nerd.

A few months ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Smitten Kitchen, was rhapsodizing about her discovery of a web source for dried beans -- Rancho Gordo. Now, if you're like me, you see the words dried beans and you think "uh, yeah, great in theory, but, like, I HAVE NO TIME". I'm a canned bean girl. Always have been. I'm also an I'd-love-to-make-chicken-stock-from-scratch-but-there-are-not-enough-
hours-in-the-day-for-that-sort-of-thing". But, people... the perfect storm has been brewing.
First, I've been reading. (uh-oh...)
Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma
...he of the often-repeated quote:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
And then,
Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian
. Years ago, Bittman's earlier book, How To Cook Everything, replaced
The Joy of Cooking
in this cookbook junkie's heart. And, now--don't be alarmed--his vegetarian book is on my nightstand. He makes a very persuasive argument for the intense flavors and textures of dried beans vs. canned and the benefits of soaking and cooking up a batch on the occasional Sunday -- and as you may, or may not, know I am a huge fan of cooking on Sundays.
He also points out that the beans' cooking liquid is deliciously flavorful in its own right (as opposed to that nasty, metallic-tasting goo that canned beans sit in) so they require very little cooking to taste spectacular.

So, there we were...wandering the cornucopia of the San Francisco Ferry Terminal Farmer's Market, and I spotted a sign that looked familiar. Rancho Gordo. Imagine that!! The very same beans Deb at Smitten Kitchen was raving about...and having to mail order, are grown in Napa and available at the market! I was giddy! The beans were ready to go, packed in clear, one-pound bags and came with recipe cards. There were multiple varieties with lovely names...Borlotti...Flageolet...Scarlett Runner...Black Calypso. They were beautiful. I wanted them all. I thought about it a few minutes. What were typically the most disappointing, icky canned beans? Ha. Easy. Cannellini. I've tried virtually every canned variety of this classic Italian white bean and the quality, across-the-board, is dismal. So, I brought a pound of dried Cannellini beans at the market, brought them home and followed the recipe card instructions the very next day...a Sunday.

At the risk of sounding like a total kook, I will tell you the beans were close to life-changing. They had a nutty, robust flavor and meaty texture unlike any canned variety I had ever tasted. It was an epic moment. I immediately formulated a bean-stockpiling Sunday a month, I will cook up a batch of half, and freeze half ( a Bittman suggestion). That way, I'll have a "pantry" full of beans, in my freezer, at the ready. As my husband likes to point out..."you love a project".

That evening we enjoyed my version of Beans-on-Toast...or, maybe one could call it Extremely Hearty Bruschetta or even This Would Tickle Any Tuscan.
Buon appetito!

"Beans-on-Toast" Tuscan-Style
serves 4-6

2 cups cooked--recipe below-- (or canned) white cannellini beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup grape/cherry tomatoes
1 bunch arugula, washed and dried
sliced, toasted ciabatta
fruity/peppery extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling

1. Heat the olive oil in pan over medium heat, and saute garlic until barely golden. Add beans and some cooking liquid and saute until warmed through. Taste for seasoning.

2. Slice and toast the ciabatta.

3. Plate a handful of arugula and scatter some tomatoes over. Drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

4. Top with a couple spoonfuls of sauteed beans. Drizzle a tiny bit more olive oil and garnish with toasted ciabatta.

To Cook Dried Beans
There are numerous ways* to cook up some beans. Crockpot (uh, sorry, not enough counter space). Pressure Cooker (traumatized by a couple pressure-cooker debacles in my mother's kitchen in the '70s, I say, no thanks -- too scary.) Standard, stovetop. (I'm in!)*

*Go to Rancho Gordo's web site, or anywhere on the web really, for advice on using alternate methods. I'll tell you about the stovetop method I used here.

Check the beans for small debris and rinse in cool, fresh water. Cover beans with two inches of water and soak for 4-6 hours. NOTE: They will look shriveled and kind of scary. Don't worry -- they will plump back up during cooking.

The soaking puts people off, I know. The lady at the Rancho Gordo stand told me that overnight is basically too long of a soak. Their beans are pretty fresh, so they only need about 4 hours, so it really is perfect for a Sunday. Put them in around lunch time or in the morning and you're ready to cook at dinner time.

In a large pot, saute some/or all of following veg, finely chopped, in a tablespoon of olive oil until soft:
one yellow onion
one stick of celery
one carrot
one clove of garlic

Add the beans and the water and make sure the beans are covered by at least one inch of water. Bring to a hard boil for five minutes and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Once soft, add salt. Beans can take from one to three hours to cook, and you can't rush them. You also can't pinpoint an exact cooking time. Start testing and tasting after an hour or so to see how they're doing. Slow cooking (only gentle bubbling) over low heat works best. When they are tender, salt to taste and then, if you're going to freeze, let them cool in their cooking liquid and then place in plastic containers and freeze.

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