A Better Way to Cook Beans: Tips From a Chef’s Playbook


I OWE MY love of beans largely to Sara Kramer. Now chef/partner at Kismet, in Los Angeles, Sara was the chef at Glasserie, in Brooklyn, when I worked with her there. Before that, I had tried cooking beans every which way, from wood-fired ovens to pressure cookers, all of which failed to render them exciting. Sara taught me it only takes a couple smart moves to give beans some depth and even a dash of drama.

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Her first lesson: Char the aromatics. The recipe at right, for beans and greens served on toast, calls for laying a halved onion, garlic head and lemon into a hot skillet. Let the cut sides sit on the hot pan and sear to a deep brown before flipping. It will lend a remarkable depth and intensity of flavor to the finished dish. When you add the beans, the water you add along with them will deglaze the pot, picking up all the delicious browned bits on the surface and maximizing the effect.

Sara’s other item of bean wisdom: A glug of olive oil at the beginning and end of cooking does wonders. As the pot simmers, the oil added at the start sits on top, keeping the beans submerged for even cooking. A drizzle at the end provides flavor and richness plus visual appeal.

At the start of the coronavirus lockdown, I was among the legion of pantry-conscious home cooks taking another look at beans. This time I borrowed a tip from my mother, who often adds a piece of dried kombu, an umami-rich kelp, to rice, soups—most any recipe that calls for slow simmering. The kombu rounds out the flavors of the different ingredients, allowing them to meld harmoniously.

The liquid the beans cook in is culinary gold, by the way. Use any left over to lend body to soups, braises and sauces; it freezes well, too, so it’s easy to keep on hand. In this dish, that liquid enfolds the other elements and binds them together, thanks to the starch the beans release as they cook. This really is the ingredient that keeps on giving.

This recipe produces more beans than you’ll need, and that’s deliberate. The leftover beans will come handy in other dishes; as long as you’re taking the time to soak them, you might as well get that added benefit.

JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, FOOD STYLING BY PEARL JONES

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried white beans
  • 16 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed
  • ½ medium onion, halved lengthwise
  • 1 head garlic, sliced in half crosswise, plus 3 cloves garlic
  • ½ lemon or lime
  • 1 (4-by-4-inch) square dried kombu
  • 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • Kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)
  • 8 cups chopped leafy greens, such as kale or Swiss chard
  • 2 (½-inch-thick) slices crusty bread
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ teaspoon sumac (optional)

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, cover beans with 8 cups water. Cover with plastic wrap and let beans soak 8-10 hours. When ready to cook, drain beans and rinse with cold water.
  2. In a large pot, heat neutral oil over medium-high heat. Add onion halves, garlic-head halves and lemon half, cut-sides down. Cook, undisturbed, until charred, about 5 minutes. Add drained beans, remaining water, kombu and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans cook through, about 2½ hours. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season generously with salt. (Makes about 6 cups beans.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer 1 cup beans without liquid to a measuring cup, and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, heat remaining olive oil. Add bread and cook, flipping halfway through, until deep golden brown on both sides, 4-5 minutes total. Remove toast from skillet and turn off heat. Let skillet cool slightly, about 3 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, slice 2½ cloves garlic. Set aside remaining half clove. Set heat under skillet to medium. Add sliced garlic, pepper flakes and anchovy fillets, if using, to skillet. Cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in kale, reserved cup of beans and ¾ cup bean liquid. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until kale is very tender and liquid reduces a bit, about 8 minutes.
  5. In a small bowl, stir lemon juice into mayonnaise. Season with salt. To serve, swipe one side of each toast with halved garlic clove. Place toast on plates and top with greens and beans. Drizzle beans and greens with more olive oil and sprinkle sumac, if using, all over. Spoon mayonnaise sauce over toast or serve on the side.

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