Friday, March 27, 2009

A pot of beans

I love beans. I can't say it any better than that.

But I haven't always had this love affair with beans. Growing up in the California's San Joaquin Valley in the 1960s, beans came in two forms -- canned re-fried beans on Taco night and my mom's Boston baked beans.

Despite her professed dislike of beans, my mother made a mean pot of baked beans, the kind bathed in a slow oven for hours. I don't think she's made them in a decade or more.

I didn't discover the true world of beans until I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970. Then it took two years until I advanced in my career as a Navy cook to the point where I could cook in the pots (coppers to the Navy cook).

Even then, my bean education wasn't complete. Chief Brown, the engineering department's leading chief on the U.S.S. Cocopa, instructed this young seagoing cook in the ways of pinto bean cookery one lazy Saturday morning when most of the crew had slipped ashore for liberty.

Born and raised in the South, Chief Brown wasn't going to let this inexperienced cook ruin a pot of his favorite legume. At this point, a man who normally found in one of two places -- in engine room babying the tugboat's four large 16-cylinder Alco locomotive engines or fishing off the fantail in port – had become the Cocopa's master chef.

The chief, dressed in a set of Navy-grey coveralls, stepped into the galley and checked the water level in the beans. He propped his khaki chief's cap on the back of his head and scolded me.

Beans don't cook without water, the chief barked. Most of the water had evaporated from the pot. My theory on bean cookery -- pot beans should be crunchy like green beans -- didn't set well with the man.

My bean cooking technique has improved since that long summer in the South China Sea. I learned to cook beans (along with many other comfort foods) for the crew.

Today, I love to eat a basic pot of beans, one seasoned with chopped meat from a ham hock, sweet onion, cumin and Old Bay. They're the perfect accompiment to almost any meal.


Substitute pinto, pink, red or black beans for pink beans. Adjust cooking time to the variety. Pinto beans will take 1-1/2 to 2 hours while red and black beans take about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Substitute chopped meat for ham hock if desired.

10 portions for the home kitchen:
1 pound pink beans
1 small ham hock
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
2-3 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon Old Bay Seafood seasoning
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 bay leaf
Crushed red pepper, to taste

50 portions for the camp kitchen:
5 pounds pink beans
1-2 pounds chopped meat (ham hock, ham, bacon as desired)
2 pounds chopped sweet onion
4 tablespoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons Old Bay Seafood seasoning
4 teaspoons dried oregano
4 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

Pick over beans, removing discolored beans and foreign matter. Wash beans thoroughly and drain.

Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil in stockpot and boil 2 to 3 minutes. Cut heat and soak, covered, for 1 hour.

Add onions, ham hock and seasonings. Do not salt beans until you taste the broth after the ham hock has cooked about 15 to 20 minutes.

Reduce heat and cover. Simmer 1 hour or until beans are just tender. Add more water if necessary to cover beans.

Five pounds of beans makes about 7-1/2 quarts and serves 50 (1/2-cup) portions.

NOTE: This recipe uses the quick soak method. If desired, use the traditional method:

Step 1 - Pour cold water over the beans to cover.
Step 2 - Soak beans for 8 hours or overnight.
Step 3 - Drain beans and discard soak water (cold water starts the rehydration process slowly so beans will appear wrinkled after soaking).
Step 4 - Rinse beans with fresh, cool water.

From the Northharvest Bean Growers Association: Soaking softens and returns moisture to dry-packaged beans, and reduces cooking time. Soaking also makes beans easier to digest by breaking down the oligosaccharides -- the indigestible sugars that cause flatulence.

During the soaking process beans will rehydrate to at least two to three times their dry size, so it is important to begin with a large pot. A longer soaking time (up to four hours) allows a greater amount of gas-causing properties to dissolve in water, making beans more easily digestible. After soaking, rinse and cook beans in fresh water.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Steve I saw a report on cooks illustrated website and a few other articles here and there were they have recently tested the soaking theories and the quick soak method was said to produce the most digestable non-gassy beans as opposed to the long soaking method, apparently it was analyzed after cooking!

    That being said, the quick soak method has always been my method of choice, quick soak first thing in the morning I could have almost any bean ready and tasty by lunch, same for dinner, quick soak right after lunch then done for dinner...

    I'm a southern boy so as you can imagine that is one of the first things I was taught, or maybe I should say was by my best friends mom I used to watch her cook in the kitchen when I was probably 7 years old when my best friend would say 'come on lets play my mama cooks everyday - thats nothing new'.

    My mom was at work.