A Paean to a Bean
Weapon of the righteous, bane of the indolent, the humble pinto bean has ennobled humanity for at least five millennia. Black-eyed peas are often consumed on New Year’s day to invite good luck for the coming annum, but it is the pinto that has built civilizations, fed armies and families alike, and brought depth and dignity to countless chili pots. It is the most popular bean in the United States, though often tragically confined to a binary servitude: Refried or whole.
The pinto was ever-present in our household as I grew up, but only in one form: boiled in an infernal greasy morass of sowbelly and onions.
This was some kind of holdover from my dad’s Depression-era childhood on a Kansas farm. Whenever memory stirred him, he would head to the garage to cut off a slab of salt pork with a hacksaw from a carcass hanging in the rafters. He’d throw that slab into a large kettle with onions and beans and, after a couple of days of soaking, boiling and sitting out uncovered to encourage bacterial growth, we were compelled to eat it.
It was almost two decades before I discovered that beans could taste good.
I was 17 and had been invited to an elaborate dinner hosted by one of my dad’s law firm colleagues, Josephine Hayes, an archetype of her times; by turns erudite or accessible, elegant or raucous, only occasionally married and by necessity tougher and bolder than any of her male counterparts. Her dinners were, I discovered, a master class in character building.
We started off slow with an inoffensive salad, followed by evermore daring plates including, but not limited to, escargot, a selection of livers, an amphibian course, and culminating in braised sweetbreads (which, for the uninitiated, are neither sweet nor bread).
There was also a soup, and here, among an evening of wonder and terror, was an epiphany: sowbelly and beans as I had never seen it before. A few tender pintos floated on a creamy but rusticated surface, like the face of the moon, but crosshatched with long, slender chives and a suggestion of thyme leaves. My dinner companions passed around a bottle of sherry, each pouring a splash into their soup. I did the same, and was transported.
I asked Jo for the recipe, surprising myself and confounding my father. She graciously obliged and also promoted me from seat-filler to probationary rotation on her guest list.
What follows is my own adaptation of Jo’s formula, years in the making and streamlined for a pressure cooker in the interests of time and convenience, dispensing with presoaking in any case and readily mutable into a vegetarian version. Philistines will take issue with the dubious digestibility of beans, but angels and ministers of grace ask only that we not blind ourselves to salvation: The more one partakes, the better the body adapts.
Serves 4 to 6 after about an hour
2 cups dried pinto beans (or almost any bean you’ve got, like or desire)
Salt pork, between ¼ to 1 pound (more on this later; skip it if you want to go green)
1 big onion, quartered (white or sweet; red doesn’t work here)
1 head of garlic, stripped of loose skin but otherwise intact 2 bay leaves
Shot of sherry or cider vinegar
Optional but worthwhile:
Another big onion, carrot and leek (excluding top), all chopped fine
Cayenne or smoked paprika
Italian parsley, chives or thyme leaves or some combination for garnish
1. Sort, inspect and rinse beans, removing anything that isn’t a good-looking bean. Legend has it that soaking overnight or precooking makes diners less gassy. Unless you are certain the dried beans haven’t been sitting on a shelf for years, I’ve found soaking invites more risk than reward to texture and taste.
2. If you’re using pork, decide how much. I find 1 pound pork to 2 cups beans about right. In any case, use manageable slabs and brown in pressure cooker or pot to render the pork fat. (Was there ever a more beautiful phrase than “render the pork fat”? Maybe “I love you, too.”)
3. Add beans, onion, garlic and bay leaves and carefully add water to pot until about 2 inches above beans. If using a pressure cooker, add a shot of vegetable oil of some kind. This is not for flavor; it will keep the beans from foaming and clogging the pressure cooker vent.
4. Do NOT add salt. There’s plenty in the pork and granulated salt will cause the bean skins to harden while the insides remain mushy.
5. If using a pressure cooker, heat to high, then dial down to whatever it takes to get the vent to gently rock back and forth like a metronome for 30 minutes. If using an Instapot or similar, set to medium for 30 minutes. If using a good old-fashioned bean pot on the stove, bring to a boil then crank back to a simmer for about two and a half hours. Beans will be creamier if cooked covered but more intact if not.
6. Meanwhile, if you’ve skipped the pork or if you choose to live large, or just longer, sauté all the vegetables with a dose of salt, pepper and maybe some cayenne or smoked paprika until very tender. Consider adding a parsnip or a bunch of green cabbage.
7. Check beans for tenderness. With a pressure cooker, it’s best to shut off the heat, wait about 10 minutes, release the steam and dive in. If they’re not done, simmer for another 10 or so until satisfied.
8. Drain beans reserving stock. Discard pork fat and any remains of onion, garlic and bay leaves you can find.
9. Puree half of the beans with all of sautéed veggies either in a food processor or mash by hand in the pot. Add the other half of beans and a bit of bean broth (technically bean liquor) to pot until you like the consistency.
10. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. It usually isn’t. Add a tablespoon or so of vinegar if you want just before serving.
11. Serve in wide, shallow bowls to show off the appearance. Garnish as appropriate. Try it with a shot of sherry on top or with a bit of cayenne or paprika.