joshua mcfadden’s perfect shell beans
Here’s a second recipe from Joshua McFadden's Six Seasons. I’ve already gushed about the book in my previous post (corn and tomato salad with torn croutons), so this time I’ll spare you. Instead, let’s talk about beans.
Growing up, the fanciest beans I knew were beans from a can. And I’ll still get behind those beans in a heartbeat. E.g., Goya canned beans, which were largely responsible for my diet as a kid. Even Alison Roman—my simpatico chef crush—praises them in her new cookbook, citing their “superlative canned bean products for all [her] weeknight needs.” (Also, this post is not sponsored by Goya.)
But when I was old enough to cook for myself, I discovered the glory of dried beans. With a little extra effort—a soak, a simmer—I found that I could control the texture and flavor of the bean from the inside out. Nowadays, there are readily available heirloom beans that come in sassy packaging (Rancho Gordo, I’m looking at you). They are pretty and delicious and make me feel good.
Then there are fresh shell beans. Shell beans (a.k.a. shelled or shelling beans) have pods that must be removed before being cooked or dried. After a summer in the sun—for a brief window between August and October—fresh shell beans cameo at farmers’ markets and some grocery stores. Borlotti beans (cranberry beans, originally from Italy) are particularly popular. They are also breathtaking. Their speckled pink-and-white beauty is somehow both earthly and unearthly; I get butterflies every time I see them, because I am a human person who can be moved by a bean.
The additional effort here is the shelling. But if you have the time, it’s as romantic as it looks. Running my fingers down the pod and releasing the beans from their cottony beds makes me feel like the Italian nonna I was born to be. And the payoff is a bean with superior flavor and texture, sweeter and creamier than its dried processed counterparts. Once cooked, the borlotti beans lose their brilliant color. But I like that—the comfort of a plain but perfect bean, and the intimacy of knowing firsthand that she lived like a queen.
Joshua mcfadden’s PerfecT Shell Beans
Barely adapted from Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables by Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg.
This recipe is more of a guide; the exact quantities and times will vary. The key is to keep checking the beans until they’re just done since they’ll continue to cook as they cool. In the end, make sure to add enough salt and olive oil to make everything delicious. Other notes: You should shell fresh beans within a day or two to prevent mold. Once shelled, uncooked beans freeze well for up to six months. This recipe works with any fresh shell beans (borlottis, cannellini, and purgatorio are particularly good), but it’s also great with dried beans, which will require an overnight soak (unlike fresh beans). A word on salt: some people believe that salting legumes early leads to tougher skin. Joshua does not fall into this camp; he salts early and often and believes that the culprit for improperly cooking legumes is instead the early addition of acid. Lastly, below the basic recipe, I’ve included Joshua’s riffs for a quick cassoulet, dip, or soup. Beans on toast is also a tasty option, but I’ll save that for another day.
Makes 5 cups cooked beans and liquor (the flavorful cooking liquid).
4 cups fresh shell beans (from 3 lb beans in the pod), or 2 cups dried beans
1 big sprig rosemary
1 small whole dried red chile (or red pepper flakes)
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
8 to 10 cups water
Extra virgin olive oil
If using dried beans, put them in a bowl or pot and add cool water to cover by a couple of inches. Soak overnight. Drain and rinse; you should have about 4 cups now. Continue with the recipe.
Put the beans, rosemary, chile, bay leaf, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in a large pot (the beans will expand so make sure there’s plenty of room). Add water to cover the beans by 1 inch—about 8 cups for fresh beans, 10 cups for dried.
Bring everything just barely to a boil over high heat, then immediately reduce the heat and adjust so that the beans are simmering, but not actually boiling. Cook uncovered until the beans are about halfway soft—they’ll be soft enough for you to easily bite them with no crunch, but they’ll still be quite dry and crumbly inside. This could take as little as 30 minutes for fresh or 1 hour for dried, so taste early and often.
At this point, add another heaping teaspoon of salt and a glug of olive oil. Keep cooking at a gentle simmer and check frequently—the closer you get to doneness, the more frequently you should check. You want to stop cooking the beans when they are very creamy and tender all the way through but not yet mushy or broken up (though a few will split).
When you are just about at that perfect point, move the pot off the heat and let the beans cool in their liquid. They’ll finish softening the last few degrees as they cool. (If you worry that you’ve gone a bit too far and the beans risk getting mushy, as soon as you take them from the heat, transfer them from the pot to a bowl set into some ice water and stir gently to cool things down quickly.)
Once the beans are starting to cool, taste and add more salt if needed, and add another nice glug of olive oil. Once cool, you’re in business. Be sure to keep the bean cooking liquid if continuing with the recipes below.
BAKE A QUICK CASSOULET: Pile some beans into a baking dish, slice some garlic sausage and nestle it into the beans, cover the top with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil, and bake until bubbling.
PUREE TO MAKE A DIP: Scoop out some beans and liquid and puree in a food processor. Add roasted garlic, a touch of spice such as cumin or smoked paprika, and olive oil. Serve slightly warm with bread or vegetables for dipping.
MAKE A HEARTY SOUP: Brown some diced bacon or pancetta in a soup pot. Add a few diced tomatoes (canned are fine) and cook a few minutes to concentrate. Add several ladlefuls of beans and liquid, some chicken or vegetable broth to thin, and a big sprig of thyme. Simmer until nicely married and flavorful. Puree half and leave the rest chunky.