Cold winter weather and hunger can both be answered with a hunk or two of hardwood and an iron pot bubbling with beans and bone. Dried beans are an economical source of vegetable protein in all corners of the world; including a few marrow bones or some scraps of smoked meat would increase the rich flavor and nutritional content of a whole pot. Traditional methods for cooking beans rely upon earthenware vessels with fitted lids and a slow, low heat source such as a dying fire.
Those folks who are heating the old-fashioned way can also be eating beans the old-fashioned way—cooked over a fire overnight, and ready to scoop and serve in the morning.
Dried beans should be soaked in tepid water for a few hours and picked over to remove “floaters,” debris, and any loose skins.
Choose a cast iron or enamelware pot with a fitted lid. While earthenware pots are traditional for indirect heat, one would need to be rated for direct heat up to 700 degrees and/or soaked in water for several hours before using on the top of a cookstove.
To test the surface temperature of your stove, fill your FIRESAFE pot with a few inches of water to see how quickly it boils. The ideal temperature is one that will boil your beans for a few minutes, then slowly diminish over the course of eight hours or so.
If your fire seems too hot, you may choose to use a FIRESAFE buffer such as soapstone, pizza stone, or cast iron skillet (inverted for best buffering). However, prudence dictates that you simply wait a few hours for a more moderate fire on which to begin.
The easy way
If a wood stove with a cook top is not part of your present, dig into the more recent past to find the modern equivalent—the Crock Pot.
While the materials and the prevailing designs have changed a little since it was introduced in the 1970, the crux of the contraption is that it faithfully cooks your meal when you aren’t watching. Make dinner when you’re not even at home! Never burn chili again! Chicken soup that tastes like grandma used to make!
In fact, the Crock Pot actually began its commercial life with a different name—the Beanery. That’s right, it was designed in the 1950s as an electric version of the earthenware bean pot! It was redesigned and relaunched in 1971 as the Crock Pot and the rest, as they say, is history.
As is true of many cultural items from the 1970s, Crock Pots can be found for a few dollars at yard and rummage sales, or even in the back of grandma’s hall closet or on a shelf in the garage. Critics will point out that Crock Pot cooking won’t yield the intense caramel flavors of sautéing, grilling, and broiling—who cares? To add those flavors to your crock of beans, cook onions and peppers in a pan, or on a grill, then add them at the end of cooking.
Beans from around here
Steadfast Farm in Ivy, Virginia cultivated black beans in 2011 and made them available by the pound at the Charlottesville City Market. Steadfast is sold out until harvest this year—in fact, all the remaining black beans have been stored for the winter and will serve in the spring as the seeds for the 2012 crop! They are also cultivating wheat, and will be offering freshly-ground whole wheat flour and wheat berries again at the Market this year.—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.