I found a few old soil sieves propped up in the porch were perfect for this. When the beans are dry and hard, you have the satisfying task of shelling out and storing them in glass jars for use throughout the coming year. Mark advised me that heirloom beans are self-fertile and rarely cross, so don’t eat them all – a few dried beans are perfect for saving to grow again, the following season
While I waited for the beans to grow I expanded my bean cuisine by reading “Cassoulet – a French Obsession”, a lovely book by Kate Hill. She unpicks each element of this classic French bean and charcuterie dish and writes quite passionately about beans. Freshness is all according to Kate, not something I’d considered in dried beans, to be honest, but according to her those jars of beans decorating your shelf for the last few years will be starchy tasting and hard to cook compared with “fresh” dried beans. She advocates looking for a harvest or sell by date when buying dried beans and any over 2 years old are not worth shelling out for.
Kate also advocates a “love the one you’re with” local philosophy to beans not just for freshness but also terroir that will make local beans suit local dishes. While in New Zealand she was surprised by the lack of locally grown dried beans and found the imported beans that were available tough and harder to cook, pointing to irradiation, age or storage as possible culprits. Perhaps there is a place for grower to supply New Zealand bean buyers with a range of gourmet fresh dried beans?, but until then the best option for flavor and variety is to grow your own.
I was initially disappointed with the size of my harvest for the amount of plot the crop took. That was until I read that dried beans triple in size during soaking and cooking. My jars of dried beans actually yielded many more meals than I initially thought they would. Other bits of bean lore I discovered to improve my bean cuisine included:
- Soaking dried beans for 8 – 10 hours in a large bowl of cold water softens them before cooking which reduces cooking time and helps them cook evenly. Lentils and other small pulses do not need pre-soaking.
- Discarding the soaking liquid and cooking in fresh water may reduce flatulence, but some say this is a load of hot air and loses flavor in the bean. I tried both and didn’t notice an appreciable difference in taste or breeziness.
- Don’t add any salt or acidic liquids like vinegar until the end of cooking as these can slow down the cooking.
- A teaspoon of oil added to the cooking water can stop the beans foaming.
- Always cook beans on a gentle simmer. Rapid boiling will cause them to split, break up and cook unevenly.
- The best way to test for doneness is to taste the beans. When they are done they will be soft and creamy with no chalkiness, not wet and mushy.
Once the beans were grown, dried and admired, we came to the business end of the trial – the taste test. The beans were soaked overnight and the following evening we cooked up each one in nothing but water, then ate our way through a vertical tasting of 13 different varieties, awarding scores and notes on taste and texture. Oh, the things that pass for fun in these parts!
The outstanding winner on the night was Rex and Margie’s Maerawhiti bean with a nutty, sweet flavor and creamy texture. I wish I knew the variety, but I’m sure someone will recognize the seed and enlighten me. Good Mother Stallard came in a close second with a chestnut sweet flavor, and even, creamy texture – much better than the supposed gourmet Borlotti which we rated as a good flavor absorber, but now something of a has-bean by comparison.
The small pretty Persian Lima beans cooked quickly, rated well for flavor and had a uniform creamy paste, but the firm skin held the beans together making this bean well suited to bean salad. Whereas the Mexican Pinto, Blue Shackamaxon and dwarf Haricot would make ideal refried beans with thin skins, creamy paste, and bland flavors.
The soya beans tasted very rich, like the protein parcels they are and the Red Kidney beans were sweet and creamy, crying out for some chili and tomato. I cooked up some dried Red Kidney Beans from the local bulk bin as a comparison, and they took longer to cook, were not as sweet, had tougher skins and a flakier, less creamy texture than the home-grown ones. Proof that even in dried beans freshness matters.
Cooking with Dried Beans
A traditional French Cassoulet is a marriage of beans and meats, cooked slowly in a vegetable and herb enriched broth. Such is its place in the cuisine of southwestern France it even has its own special earthenware pot known as a cassole which is used to cook it in. I decided to attempt one during a wet winter weekend.
Kate Hill’s book gives several recipes including the classic Cassoulet where the method and the ritual are as important as the ingredients. This is true slow cooking – a dish to make over the course of a couple of days and to be enjoyed for a couple of days more. The combination of confit of duck, ham hock, salt pork, and a good Toulouse sausage all in the one pot may seem like a meat overload but the flavors all mingle and contribute to a significantly hearty dish that would be the poorer for omitting any one of them.
The simplicity of the dish means it relies on the quality of the ingredients to make it great. My kiwi cassoulet with the last of my Maerawhiti beans, homemade lamb sausage, lightly pickled pork belly, back fat and foot of a happy free-range pig went well with some winter veggies and herbs from the garden. The only import was some duck confit from France. Even though the meat is significant, this dish is really all about the beans.
And if Cassoulet looks a bit involved for you, here’s three of my current favorite quick and easy recipes with beans and pulses.