I took a little holiday break from writing here but not from writing, which was an interesting experiment that caused me to descend into some pretty dark stuff that no one, trust me, wants to read. So! Happy new year. Let’s talk about beans and definitely not about feelings, feminism, guns, or country music.*
I don’t pretend to be any high arbiter of bean quality, but if you like food, we live in a golden age of beautiful, heirloom beans, no small thanks to seed savers and discoverers like Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Heirloom beans are worth the money, and sometimes I special order them for particular dishes or to have on hand for a treat. I could spend a long time convincing you of the merits of gorgeous Good Mother Stallards or Christmas limas. But beans are supposed to promise a triple threat of nutrition, rib-sticking satiety, and economy. And at $6+ a pound, heirlooms don’t exactly satisfy that last qualification. So let’s talk about budget-conscious beans. Enter the humble pinto.
Available for cheap in the Hispanic section or the bulk bins of your grocery store, pintos have too long been relegated to the offending pile of liquid-y stuff that makes your taco soggy when it shares the same plate. Pintos have a nice, nutty, subtle flavor, though, that sets a good backdrop for all kinds of cuisine. When I read this Melissa Clark recipe a few years ago, I was skeptical about her distinctly Mediterranean take on pintos. I made it anyway.
Clark starts with an aromatic base of bacon along with carrot, celery, onion, and garlic. Instead of simmering the beans with wine for hours, the recipe calls for reducing a couple cups of red wine into a concentrated syrup that is stirred in towards the end of cooking. All in all, this has since become my favorite bean preparation, ever. It’s nice enough for guests, and in winter, served alongside grits (my favorite) or rice (Ben’s), it really keeps you going.
Melissa’s recipe is pretty perfect as-is, but I bring you the wisdom of having cooked this recipe from dried beans, a million ways: soaked overnight, thrown in dry, on the stovetop, and in the oven. They all work! And all methods are a bit better after a day or so of sitting after cooking. I’ll give stovetop instructions here, but any oven bean-cooking method is easily translated to this recipe, especially if you have a nice dutch oven that can go from stove to oven.
* But, if you want to read about these things, here are some people who can write about these topics better than I can!
Feelings: I Will Be Your Mother Figure, from the ever-wonderful Modern Love column of the NYT.
Feminism: Jessica Valenti recently launched a food newsletter that has quick hits of what she’s cooking, what she’s thinking about, and, quirkily, selections from her teenage diaries. It is fun, smart, and irreverent and if you like Valenti’s writing generally, you will enjoy. Sign up here.
Guns: “It leaves us less sure, as Notre-Dame’s bells toll for the dead jesters, who will get the last laugh.” Philip Gourevitch on “the pen versus the gun”.
Country music: I spend too much time watching Dolly sing Jolene in 1974.
Melissa Clark’s pinto beans braised with bacon & red wine
A tip: Use a non-reactive pot for this one—enamel cast-iron is great—because the acidic wine can make things taste unpleasantly metallic otherwise.
- Several ounces to 1/2 pound smoky bacon, diced (Clark’s recipe calls for a full half pound, but I find you can get the good effects of the smoky bacon with just a few slices of thick cut bacon if you have it kicking around)
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 carrots, peeled if desired, and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large sprigs woody herb of your choice (Clark’s recipe calls for rosemary, which is very nice, but I have used thyme and sage to equal success)
- 1 pound dried pinto beans, dry OR soaked overnight (soaking overnight will shorten cooking time, though, so read directions carefully before beginning)
- 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt, with more to taste
- 2 cups dry red wine
- Good olive oil, for serving (optional)
- Coarsely grated parmesan, for serving (optional)
- Coarsely ground black pepper or red pepper flakes, for serving (optional)
- In a large, thick-bottomed pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until some fat is rendered and the bacon is starting to turn golden but is not totally cooked, about 5 minutes. Add onion, celery, and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, another five to ten minutes, until onions begin to turn translucent and vegetables begin to turn tender.
- Add beans to pot, whether dry or soaked overnight (although if beans have been soaked overnight, drain them first). Add the tablespoon of salt. Add 7 or 8 cups of water. For beans soaked overnight, this will just cover them. For dried beans, it will seem a substantial amount of liquid. Bring the beans to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. For beans soaked overnight, simmer gently for about 45 minutes to one hour. For beans being cooked from dry, simmer gently for 2 to 4 hours.
- Meanwhile, in a small pot over medium heat, bring the 2 cups wine to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and simmer until wine is reduced to about one-third and has formed a thin syrup. This takes about 20 minutes.
- When beans are tender and have begun to give off their starchy, bean-y liquid, remove any branches from woody herbs in your pot and discard them. Add the reduced wine to the pot and stir it to combine. Bring the beans to a simmer again, and cook for 10 to 20 minutes more for the flavors to meld.
- Serve the beans alongside polenta, buttered egg noodles, rice, or potatoes. Pass olive oil, grated parmesan, and black pepper or red pepper flakes for topping.
- To make ahead, allow beans to cool after adding the red wine. Refrigerate until ready to eat. To heat, gently bring the beans to a simmer on the stovetop before serving.