White bean experiments

The discovery that my grandparents raised beans as a cash crop gave me new interest in the "magical fruit," and I was pleased to discover someone selling great white northern beans at our local farmers' market. I bought a small amount - probably a cup in measurement - and that sat on our counter for a few weeks while I pondered what to do with the beans.

I'd heard of making a bean puree to spread on crostinis, but I had no idea how to go about making the puree. My first recipe fell victim to the toughness of great whites - they are better suited for soups and baked dishes - so I sought out dried cannelloni beans and found a proper recipe. I think the first recipe would work, given the right beans. The second recipe was quite good.
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Soaking beans in water softens them and allows them to break down components that hinder digestion. I blame a lack of proper soaking for two bad experiences with lentils, but I digress - this is about white beans. Bean need to be rinsed and sifted to eliminate rocks, broken beans, and moldy beans.

A standard method is to soak the beans in water over night and then cook them, which is what I did with the great northerns. I tried to soften them in a slow cooker for the better part of a day, mixed with herbs, but the setting was too low. Next time, i will try an alternate method to soften the beans, using a quick boil, an hour of soaking, and then an hour of boiling.

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Turn off the heat and add 1 cup of rinsed and sorted beans to the pot. Let the beans sit, uncovered, for 1 hour. Bring the beans to a boil and boil them for 35 to 60 minutes. The length of boiling depends on the toughness of the beans. Great northerns need 60 minutes using this method, while cannelloni beans do fine with 45 minutes. The centers of the beans should be squishy.

Great northerns prove tough

I wound up boiling the great northerns even after they had simmered in a slow cooker for 10 hours. Because I had soaked them in cold, not hot water, I needed to boil them for more than 60 minutes. This was a frustrating experience, and I was much relieved to get good guidance from a cookbook later.

I removed the herbs, except for a few specks of rosemary, and pureed the beans. This didn't work well, since the great northerns hadn't absorbed enough water. The beans had a mild herb flavor that I enjoyed, but that flavor disappeared when I added oil to ease the pureeing process. We had leftover fromage blanc cheese, purchased from a local producer, and that went into the blender along with leftover chevre from Laura Chenel.

The beans formed a thick paste that never was smooth. Think of the lumpiest, chunkiest hummus that you've ever had, and you'll have a good idea of the consistency. The mixture lost most of the herb influence, as beans will if disturbed by even a little bit of oil.
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I burnt slices of French bread, from Tall Grass Bakery, and spread the paste on each piece, topping them with a sprinkle of chopped rosemary from the garden. The rosemary restored some of the herbal quality I had been seeking. As an accompaniment, we had sparkling apple cider - we have a few cases left over from our wedding. The snack was pleasant in the late afternoon, if a little lacking in herbal oomph.

White beans and garlic onion confit

This week, I decided to take another shot at making a white bean dish, this time using the softer cannelloni beans. I chose to make white beans and garlic onion confit from The Herbfarm Cookbook and was pleased with the results. The Herbfarm is a restaurant in Woodinville that utilizes local ingredients, many sourced from their own garden and farm, and as the name suggests emphasizes seasonal herbs.

1 cup of white beans, such as cannelloni beans
1 bouquet garni, preferably fresh
4 cups of water
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cups of chicken or hearty vegetable stock
1 whole onion, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary, minced
1 tablespoon of fresh winter savory, minced or 2 tablespoons of dried savory

The first step is to add the beans to boiled water and let them soak for an hour, as mentioned above. When the beans are boiled, the recipe calls for a bouquet garni. Bouquet garni is a bundle or sachet of herbs that typically includes parsley, thyme, and bay leaves, but may include several other herbs. I happened to have a single bouquet languishing in the cupboard from who knows when, so in it went into the pot.

A fresh bouquet of tied herbs ought to have added a strong flavor to the beans. My dried bouquet of unknown age added a strong, earthy green flavor that was short-lived. I pureed the beans and achieved a fairly smooth texture that was pleasing.

The next step of the recipe is to make the garlic onion confit. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 2 quart sauce pan and add the onion and garlic. Stir the mixture frequently for about 8 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Add the chicken stock, rosemary and savory, and boil the mixture for 30 minutes until the confit is thick and the liquid has dropped below the level of the onions. Stir the bean puree into the confit and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes. The mixture should be blended thoroughly.

The rosemary and savory meld nicely with the onions and garlic, which don't quite carmelize but do combine their sweetness with the heartiness of the stock for a dish that is a bit of a switch hitter - the confit should go well with a pinot noir (red) or a pinot grigio (white).

I broiled lamb arm chops and opted for a pinot noir, to celebrate something that occurred earlier in the day. This time, I browned the bread carefully, topping the slices with cheese from Sea Breeze Farm and some of the confit. More confit was placed on the plates as an accompaniment - it's the funny brownish stuff in the image below. The lettuce came from our farmers market, much to our surprise.

Some enterprising farmers are covering their lettuce with burlap to protect the heads from the cold and bring their produce to the winter market. This week's freezing spell, freezing rain and snow storm probably put an end to the crops, but we will find out this weekend whether more lettuce is to be had.

The bean and confit tasted wonderful, and we enjoyed the sweet taste of success with Cameron's Abbey Ridge Pinot Noir, a biodynamic wine that we brought back from Oregon.

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5 Responsesto “White bean experiments”

  1. This looks great - I just made a puree of Great NOrthern Beans, artichoke hearts, pecorino romano, parsley and olive oil the other day - Mmm, tasty. Been eating it on crusty gluten-free bread.

  2. Jim Dixon says:

    According to McGee, beans that never get tender have usually been stored for long periods at warm temps and high humidity. You can't tell when you buy them, and there's no way to make them tender. So it wasn't the variety, Great Northerns, that made your first batch tough.

    Soaking isn't absolutely necessary, although opinions differ on its effect on the final product. Dried beans need to both rehydrate and cook, and I've found the best way (and McGee basically concurs) is long, slow cooking. I cook most dried beans in a ceramic pot in the oven at about 200F without any soaking. I usually need to add a little water after an hour or so, but the beans are always good.

    It helps to start with better beans. Here in Portland I'm lucky to have a couple of sources for incredible dried beans (Shepherd's Grain for red beans and garbanzos, Ayers Creek Farm for a variety of heritage beans), but Rancho Gordo sells great beans from their web site: http://www.ranchogordo.com. There are recipes, too.

    And I just made a white bean spread last week. I simmered some small white beans with salt, drained them, then tossed them in the processor with a few cloves of garlic, a splash of lemon juice (wine vinegar works, too...they need a little acid), and lots of good olive oil.

  3. Gretchen says:

    We have a favorite soup made from Great Northerns. We have our own ratio which makes it more of a stew type thing, but you can adjust as you see fit.

    1 LB Dinner Style Sausage
    6 Cups of Stock
    4 Cups Cooked Great Northern Beans
    1 Medium Onion
    5 Cloves Garlic Chopped
    1 LB Kale (Cleaned and De-Stemmed)
    Salt and Pepper
    Seasonings of your choice (We like red pepper flakes and thyme.)
    Apple Cider Vinegar

    Slice sausage into disks and brown in a soup pot. Remove the meat and soften onions and garlic in the leftover fat. Add beans, kale, sausage, seasonings, and stock. (Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to introduce the kale in batches.) After the kale softens and wilts, let the soup simmer for at least more 15 minutes, but longer is better to meld flavors. (I like it to sit on the stove on low heat for two hours.) Salt and pepper to taste, and dress with a splash of vinegar.

    We use whatever stock we have laying about, chicken, duck, veggie, and beef stocks all work well. It's twice as good the next day when you pull it out of the fridge. I really like this recipie 'cause I find it hard to come up with good ways to eat kale, and it's so darn good for you.

  4. Peg Porter says:

    I recently had a wonderful cannelloni and rosemary soup that I would love to have the recipe for. Anyone?

  5. Bixby says:

    You can add anchovy paste, one T per can of beans, to the tapenade. It doesn't taste like fish, but adds depth and nutrition.