Rick Blaine, the hero of Casablanca, had it wrong.
At the mist-shrouded airport, he tells Ilsa, the love of his life, that she needs to leave him and board the plane to freedom with her heroic husband, Victor.
"Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble," he says nobly, "but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
He says that as if beans were unimportant, as if they were expendable, as if they could be cast aside without a second thought.
What a disservice he does to the stately vegetable, how shabbily he treats the elegant legume.
Beans are an indispensable source of protein. Because they are so affordable and provide such a vital part of our nutrition, they are among the most widely consumed types of food on earth. Some people even call them a magical fruit.
Humble, yes, and plentiful. But when push comes to shove, they are also downright tasty.
At this time of year, when the air is crisp and chilled, when the bitter wind stings our faces, what is better and more comforting than to come home to a big pot of beans steaming on the stove?
They're warming, they're hearty. There is nothing better to drive away the winter blues.
On a couple of particularly cold days recently, we decided to explore beans in a variety of ways. We wanted to cook them ourselves and use them out of a can, make them into a vegetarian entree and as a flavorful exclamation point to a meat-based main course. We endeavored to use them in traditional ways and new recipes.
And, simply because we have wanted to do it for a long time, we used them to blend our own hummus in a particularly painstaking way, but absolutely worth every second of the effort.
We started out with a bean stew, flavored with rosemary and garlic, and served atop farro, an age-old grain that in recent years has become trendy again.
This particular recipe calls for dried beans, and because we made it after work and are fundamentally lazy, we did not bother first to soak them overnight. Skipping this time-saving step meant simmering the beans on the stove for a good two hours or so until they were soft. Only then could we begin to put together our stew. Once they were ready, into the beans went olive oil, garlic, an onion studded with a clove, and a bouquet garni of rosemary, thyme, and a bay leaf.
We let that pot simmer away merrily while the flavors blended. Meanwhile, we prepared the farro, which is no different from making pasta. When the beans were done, we pureed half of them, stirred them back into the pot, and served it on top of the nutty-tasting farro.
It was magic.
For a meat-based entree, we roasted a chicken over a melange of chickpeas (they're actually beans, garbanzo beans), lemons, and carrots. It was quite a healthy meal, except for the three tablespoons of butter that are rubbed into the chicken before cooking. That's how to get the skin so crispy, which is one of the dish's defining elements, but people watching their waistlines might want to eliminate that step.
The chicken was flavored with garam masala, a heady mixture of Indian spices. The beans and carrots on the bottom have both the garam masala and the lemons, an unexpected mixture that brought an exciting verve to the chickpeas and unified the dish into an exotic whole.
And so we were inspired to try the most famous of all meat-and-bean dishes, cassoulet. The traditional recipe for this mainstay of French peasant food requires many hours to make, and sometimes more than one day. But it was a weeknight and we were hungry, so we tracked down a quick recipe for weekday cassoulet from Melissa d'Arabian, who has a show on the Food Network we have never watched or heard of. With canned beans instead of dried and chicken taking the place of duck or lamb, the whole dish comes together in less than two hours.
Unfortunately, we ran into a non-recipe-related problem when we started to put it together. Bacon is at the heart of most cassoulets, but the bacon we had bought the day before we made it had already gone bad (the expiration date on the still-sealed package was set for a few days later). Rather than go back to the store, we searched the fridge and came up with smoked turkey sausage.
Not quite the same thing, and it meant adding olive oil instead of relying on bacon drippings, but it certainly did the trick. The meal was as hearty as it was filling, and as filling as it was delicious. This is a dish to make all winter long.
Both entrees we made with meat used beans out of a can, to no particular detriment. But our hummus absolutely required that they be home-cooked.
We have been making our own hummus for years, and have always used canned chickpeas for the sake of convenience. But then we saw Melissa Clark's recipe for Stupendous Hummus, which not only uses fresh-cooked beans, it also requires that each individual chickpea be peeled. The recipe, she said, makes restaurant-quality hummus, the best you've ever tasted.
Naturally, we had to try it. And because, once again, we did not soak the beans overnight, we had to soften them first. We boiled them for two minutes and then let them sit in the hot water for an hour.
Nothing could be easier. Which is good, because removing each individual skin turned out to be a real pain. It is monotonous work, but it isn't hard — which means you can do it while you are distracted by something else. We did it while watching Downton Abbey. If we weren't watching TV, it would have gone faster. On the other hand, if we weren't watching TV, it may have driven us crazy.
The result was spectacular, hummus of a satiny smoothness we had never before come even close to achieving. And it tasted every bit as good as it looked and felt.
Ms. Clark, in whose book we found the recipe, writes that she will never again go to the trouble of peeling each bean. She is happy enough just to cook the beans herself, and maybe to peel some of them until she gets bored.
But we might do it all again. Especially if there is something worth watching on TV.
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic, and Farro
1 pound dried cannellini beans
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 celery stalk, cut in half lengthwise, leaves reserved
1 large onion, halved from root to stem
1 whole clove (stick it in an onion half)
2 rosemary sprigs
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 piece Parmesan rind, optional
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup farro
¼ teaspoon red pepper
Chopped celery or parsley leaves for garnish, optional
Lemon juice and/or grated Parmesan cheese for serving, optional
If you have time, soak the beans in advance; put them in a large bowl and cover with several inches of water. Let sit overnight, or at least a few hours.
When ready to cook, drain the beans (if soaking) and place in a large pot over medium-high heat, along with oil, 3 of the garlic cloves, celery, and onion. Bundle together the rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf, tie securely with kitchen twine, and throw it into the pot. Add Parmesan rind, if using. Cover everything with water and stir in the salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, partly covered, until beans are soft. This will take 1-3 hours, depending on how long you soaked the beans (if you did) and how old the dried beans were when you bought them.
If the pot starts to look dry before cooking is complete, add more water; at the end of cooking, the water should not quite cover the beans. If there is too much liquid, ladle out the excess.
While the beans are cooking, prepare the farro. Rinse thoroughly, then add to a large pot of boiling, salted water. Cook, according to directions on package, until softened. Drain well.
Mince the remaining 2 garlic cloves.
When the beans are cooked, remove and discard the onion, celery, herbs, and optional Parmesan rind (you can leave the garlic in the pot). Ladle half the beans into a food processor or blender, add the minced raw garlic, and puree. Return the bean puree to the pot.
Serve the beans in bowls over the farro, drizzle each portion with plenty of olive oil, then sprinkle with flaky salt, red pepper, and celery leaves or parsley. If the stew tastes flat, swirl in some lemon juice; grated Parmesan cheese on top is also nice.
Yield: 6 servings
Soruce: Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
Crisp, Roasted Chicken with Chickpeas, Lemons, and Carrots with Parsley Gremolata
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons garam masala
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons pepper
1 (3½-pound) whole chicken, rinsed and patted dry
4 thyme sprigs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch rounds
For the gremolata:
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 small garlic clove, minced
Preheat oven to 400°. Quarter the lemons lengthwise and remove and discard any seeds. Thinly slice 6 of the lemon quarters crosswise (you will get little triangles) and in a bowl, toss them with the chickpeas, oil, ½ tablespoon garam masala, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper.
Season the inside of the the chicken cavity with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Fill the cavity with the remaining lemon wedges and thyme sprigs. Rub the outside of the chicken all over with the remaining 1 tablespoon garam masala, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Rub the butter all over the skin.
Scatter the carrots in the bottom of the largest roasting pan you have, the one you use for Thanksgiving turkey. Place a wire roasting rack over the carrots; arrange the chicken breast-side up, on the rack. Roast 30 minutes, stirring carrots occasionally. Scatter the chickpea mixture into the bottom of the roasting pan. Continue to roast until the chicken's thigh juices run clear when pierced with a knife, 45-60 minutes longer. Let the chicken rest 5 minutes before carving.
Meanwhile, combine the parsley, lemon zest, and garlic in a bowl. Spoon the carrot-chickpea mixture onto a platter; arrange the chicken on top. Sprinkle the gremolata over the dish and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Soruce: Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
1 cup dried chickpeas
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 fat garlic clove, or 2 smaller cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch cayenne, optional
1/3 cup tahini
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Soak the chickpeas overnight or boil 2 minutes, remove from heat, and let sit, covered, for 1 hour. Drain. Simmer in heavily salted water with the 4 whole garlic cloves until soft, about 1 hour. Drain, discard garlic cloves, and remove skins from each chickpea (this step is optional).
Combine the chopped garlic, lemon juice, salt, cumin, and optional cayenne in a food processor. Pulse the mixture a few times until just blended together. Add the tahini and ½ cup water. Pulse until smooth. Add the chickpeas and puree until smooth and creamy. This may take several minutes, but stick with it. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil until the mixture is combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning; you may need to add more salt. If you do add salt, dissolve it first in a few drops of lemon juice or warm water.
Spread on a plate. Top with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a dash of cayenne.
Yield: 3½ cups
Soruce: Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
4 chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
½ pound slab bacon, sliced into large lardons (see cook's note)
1 large onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
2 cups cooked (canned) Northern white beans
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup chicken stock
1 fresh tomato or 2 canned tomatoes, sliced thinkly
Garlic bread crumbs, below
1 baguette, sliced, for serving
Cook's note: Lardons are small strips or cubes of bacon. If you don't want to use bacon, slice ½ pound of smoked turkey sausage.
Preheat oven to 350°. Rinse and dry the chicken well and season with salt and pepper. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
In a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat, add the bacon and slowly render the fat. Remove the bacon to a plate when crispy, and discard half the fat in the pan. If using turkey sausage instead of bacon, pour 2 tablespoons oil (preferably olive oil) into pot, but don't cook the sausage yet.
Raise the heat to medium high and add the chicken, skin side down. Brown the chicken on both sides, and then remove to a plate. Add the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with white wine and reduce by half. Stir in the beans, bay leaf, and thyme. Nestle the chicken pieces and bacon (or sausage slices, if using) into the pot. Add the chicken stock, cover, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the lid, and top the cassoulet with sliced tomatoes and the garlic bread crumbs. Return to the oven and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes longer. Serve with baguette slices.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from a Melissa d'Arabian recipe from Food Network
Garlic Bread Crumbs
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
3 slices slightly stale or dried bread, pulsed into crumbs in food processor
Kosher salt and pepper
In a sauté pan over low heat, add the oil and garlic. Stir until the oil is fragrant, about 1 minute. Toss in the bread crumbs and cook until the bread crumbs start to turn golden, 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat.
Source: Food Network, by Melissa d'Arabian