Beans in Winter
I am not a fan of winter. January alone is a strange mix of relief, guilt, and exhaustion to have gotten through the holidays, only to find oneself back at work as if time never passed. In fact, the last six weeks of every year have always reminded me a little of the Narnia/real life binary in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – a whole lifetime of events happens between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and yet by January, it seems as if only a second has passed.
So January and February are nesting months to me. They are months to get some of those nagging home projects done – paint the bedroom trim, install new blinds (very important in these dark winter days), rearrange furniture – and I do find myself feeling just a touch of accomplishment for these little indoor triumphs, but only weekends on and some very productive nights. Still, I dread these months, almost as if I expect it to be spring right after Christmas. It’s hard to exercise, hard to cook anything ambitious, hard to regroup with friends after a long hiatus of holiday parties, church services, and airline travel.
This month, heirloom beans have helped me get over a big part of the winter blues. Who knew that a pot of beans could provide so much comfort? For Christmas, my mother gave me and my husband packages of Rancho Gordo heirloom beans in hand-woven baskets made from Arkansas white pine. Unable to take our presents on the plane with us, she shipped them via UPS and they arrived just a few days after New Year’s (accompanied by stuffed animals, toys, and baby clothes for our due-in-March son). One of the bean packages had broken open in transit, spilling caramel-colored beans through the white pine basket and onto every surface in the near vicinity, so it seemed. I had no other choice but to gather them up, clean them off, and cook them as soon as possible.
In the early months of my pregnancy, my husband and I called our growing baby “the bean.” The bean is making me so sick today. The bean is making me cry for no reason. Yes, I’m going to bed at 8:00 – not my fault, blame it on the bean. Now he is an almost-born boy, but in a way, he will always be our little bean. So when beans spilled out of the hand-woven Arkansas pine basket and lodged themselves into all those stuffed animals and tiny clothing sets, all I could do was smile, gather them up as best as I could, and make enough beans to last us through April.
I cooked my spilled beans – about 6 cups’ worth – on the night the polar vortex was at its trough. They cooked in a large copper saucepan, first on the gas stove and then in the oven, filling our cold house with warm, earthy smells while we went around opening faucets in the bathrooms and sinks to allow them to drip through the night. The beans were done when they were swimming in their own thick “gravy” that was perfect poured over salt-and-pepper rice.
Accompanied by fire-roasted tomatoes, sautéed bell peppers, and leftover caramelized onions, the finished beans were gorgeous and bright.
I’ve been trying to figure out what about beans is so satisfying. Maybe it’s on account of my little bean. Maybe it was the comfort of cooking good, healthy food during the polar vortex. Maybe it was the planning of having something so basic and inexpensive for meals these cold winter weeks. Since that night, we have eaten them both plain and with rice, with baked tortillas and sour cream, with slices of toasted bread and goat cheese. These beans essentially got us back on track and looking forward to our own little bean’s arrival even more.
Preheat oven to 300F. In a heavy saucepan, cover about 2 cups of good-quality dry heirloom beans with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil on the stove. Cook in the oven, covered, for about an hour and a half.
If the “gravy” is still thin and watery, remove lid and continue to cook in the oven for about 30 minutes, or put back on the stove and simmer until liquid is thick.
Season beans with plenty of ground sea salt and black pepper. Add tomatoes, peppers, onions, leftover ham or turkey, sausage, kale, or anything else lingering in the fridge that needs to be eaten up. A little beef stock added at the end and simmered into the beans also adds a beautiful layer of richness. I seasoned mine with some Mexican Epazote. Top with goat cheese or sour cream, and eat with toast and rice.
Drip your faucets. Watch Downton Abbey and try not to be too upset about recent episodes. Eat leftovers for the next month. Spring is a long way away, but, as with Narnia, we’ll soon find ourselves in April and wondering how it was that winter lasted just one second.