Friday, April 10, 2009

Bean There

Ate that. Cannellini-chicken-chili stew. Some butternut squash from the
market in there, too. A spare sprinkling of Roth Kase gruyere. The beans--certified organic--from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, rivals in other arenas, get along very nicely in the stew pot.

I gotta tell ya, the root cellar is looking pretty sparse, and considering whether tonight's fresh veg is going to be squash, leek, carrot, or frozen kale...again...well, we find inspiration running low, too. But it does also seem, as this winter of eating locally draws to a close, that something new and interesting and good has always come along at just the right moment to see us through--a few handfuls of home-grown greens; remembering that mushrooms are a local, seasonal crop; getting liquid gold from tall gray trees; firing up the grill for delicious local bison and goat.

And most recently, these terrific beans. You might consider dried beans to be poverty rations, survival fare. It doesn't have to be that way. The key is finding the freshest dried beans, if you'll pardon the oxymoron. Beans that are from the previous fall's harvest will be better in flavor and texture, more tender, and will cook more quickly than beans that have been sitting around in some warehouse for years. Knowing your source is all-important.

You can sometimes find various kinds of shell beans--beans for drying--at farmers' market in late summer and fall. If you do, it's worth stocking up for the winter. Buy them in the shell and let them dry in an airy place until the shell is crispy dry. Then they're a cinch to shell, jar, and store.

If you can't get them from a local farm,
Seed Savers Exchange is an excellent source, and there was a recent New York Times Magazine article about Rancho Gordo beans, from California, dry legumes that have turned Thomas Keller's head, among other accomplishments. Top-quality beans are not cheap--$5 a pound or more--but they're worth it.

However: I am not saying you can't make and enjoy this dish with more economical beans from your local co-op, for instance. You certainly can, and should. But do try the "gourmet" kind some time, and see what you think. In my experience the pricier beans cook up to something much more like fresh.

And if you live in this area, by all means put a trip to Seed Savers on your agenda. We were just there for an apple-grafting clinic, and even in the chill gray of early spring is was a fascinating place to visit: an idyllic little bluff-encircled valley, a spring pond emptying into a perfectly burbling stream. Less natural but equally appealing, the gift shop is a gardener's and food-lover's nirvana.

I deviate from conventional bean wisdom in a couple of ways. For one, I eschew the overnight soaking that many dried bean recipes call for. One big reason for this is that I often don't know the night before that I want to cook beans the next day. The other reason is that I've found it unnecessary. What I do instead is to preboil the beans for a while prior to putting everything together in the pot. This speeds the overall cooking time, and by discarding the initial cooking water, you may somewhat decrease the legendary musicality, the windiness factor associated with eating dried beans. I do think it helps somewhat in that regard; but you know, nothing's perfect...enjoy these delicious, nutritious legumes among friends.

I do adhere to the admonition against adding salt early in the cooking of beans, lest they toughen. I've read debunkings of this practice, but I disagree.

Another little inspiration of local, seasonal cooking that I discovered this winter (don't claim to have invented it) is using pickled chilies in soups and stews. For this dish I used a couple of Mala's fantastic pickled jalapenos, and a couple of my own home-canned pickled anaheims. That gave a lovely brightness to the aroma and taste, and a subtle background heat.

The chicken: Chicken breast is not my favorite part of the bird, but I had a couple breasts in the freezer, and this seemed like a good way to use them up. It was. But chicken thighs would be as good or better. You could skin and bone them, or not. Cook them whole or cut them into chunks, either way would work. If using thighs, add them back to the stew about halfway through the cooking, rather than at the end as with the breast pieces.

Cannellini Chicken Chili Stew

This should feed four, but if you're serving hungry maple sap gatherers, it may only yield three servings....

1 cup dried cannellini beans

1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 cloves garlic chopped fine (or more, to taste)
1/2 cup chopped pickled or fresh green chilis (I used 1 1/2 pickled jalapenos, 2 small pickled anaheims)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 dried hot red chili (serrano or cayenne), broken in half
1 bay leaf

2 chicken breasts, in 1 1/2-inch cubes (or 3 to 4 thighs, see above)

1 cup butternut squash, peeled, in one-inch cubes
1 packed cup chopped greens (mustard, kale, mizuna, escarole, chard, etc.)

salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated gruyere cheese, or similar

Place the beans in a saucepan with water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a boil and cook at a fast simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for 15 minutes or more. Drain off the water, again cover the beans with water by an inch, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

While the beans are simmering, salt and pepper the chicken pieces and brown them lightly in the olive oil in a heavy saucepan or dutch oven. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the chopped onion and carrot. Sauté for about five minutes. Add the chilies and sauté another couple of minutes, then the garlic for one minute more.

Add the beans and their water to the pot along with the dried red chili and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Simmer, partly covered, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, 45 to 60 minutes.

Check on the beans every 15 minutes; add water as needed to keep the beans covered. By the end of cooking you want the liquid reduced to where the dish is more of a stew than a soup, and the starch from the beans will give the broth a lovely velvety quality.

Add salt to taste only when the beans are starting to become tender. Add the squash, greens, and chicken to the stew, and simmer for 20 minutes or so, until the squash and greens are tender.

Serve with a sprinkling of grated gruyere or other grating cheese of your choice.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

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