Don’t be mean with the beanz…..

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Imagine a range of iconic European dishes missing the beans we associate with them. Think Cassoulet sans haricot beans, Spanish Capparrones without kidney beans, Pasta e fagioli devoid of borlotti’s  and  Ribollita minus cannellini. All of these dishes would be very, very different had the Spanish not bought back from the Americas the family of “wild  beans” that also includes the flageolet, navy, pinto and black turtle.

Of course these were not the only foods to come from the new world, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn also became staples around the globe, but it is the cheap and abundant protein in beans that sets them apart. Consumed in large quantities where plant based diets dominate they are often called “poor mans meat”. However in the wealthier  “new world” by comparison we eat very little with our abundant and cheap animal protein. In Australia at least, most of the beans consumed are of the value added or canned variety with one famous brand of baked beans owning the lions share and in fact all too often dry beans are seen as an inconvenience food.

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Subsequently, many people miss out as the best bean dishes get their distinctive  flavors from how they are prepared,  seasoned and slowly cooked. Of course this takes a little forward planning, but it’s more than worth the effort. It also provides the chance to strip the beans of some of their flatulent qualities. Simply put, pre soaking beans overnight or for a few hours at least and then discarding the soaking water not only hastens cooking but also removes a good amount of the fermentable sugars that provide beans with the reputation of being the “musical fruit”…

In Central and South America where beans are often the staple protein they take this process a little further, cooking their beans with a dried herb called epazote and in Japan, kombu is often added to the cooking water and the enzymes in this seaweed reputedly break down these sugars mentioned above. As for cooking times, which is the reason most people site for not using dry beans, there are a couple of very easy ways around this.

A slow cooker will cook beans  without any care or attention while you sleep, work or play  but you can also drastically reduce times to under an hour if you need to by simply using a pressure cooker.  However, there are a few things to note that will also affect both the cooking times and finished tenderness in beans and these are salt, sugar, and acidity. All of these will tend to harden  beans in the early part of the cooking process and so most commonly, these ingredients are only added once beans have reached tenderness.

Of course there are always exceptions to rule and in Latin America and the Caribbean, cooking beans with salted meat is a common treatment. These dishes are often a little firmer in texture and stand up to prolonged cooking without dissolving into overcooked mush. Importantly the bean of choice for most of these dishes is the relatively unknown (at least in Australia) black turtle bean and of all the beans mentioned in this blog this has to be my absolute favourite.

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I first came across them a few years ago as an ingredient in a version of the Punjabi  classic “Kali Dal” where they replaced the regular “Rajma” or kidney beans, lending a deeper richer colour. However their real home is the Americas from Louisiana, throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America where they take their place in many national or regional specialties from black bean burritos, tamales and “Frijoles Negras” to the Cuban classic “Moros y Christianos”.

What makes them special is their dense, meaty texture, that and the rich dark gravy they create. This is especially so in the dishes that are not purely vegetarian, but rather combine cheaper cuts of meat like pickled pork hocks and salt beef where very long slow cooking is needed to tenderize the meat. A great example of this would be one of Brazils national dishes, Feijoada,  a supremely rich and meaty stew only needing  a little rice and maybe a side of greens to be a complete meal.

The following recipe for braised black beans is simplicity at its best, of course it doesn’t have to be this simple as these complex flavours work well, tricked up “restaurant style” like the image below with some grilled or roasted meat and a creamy root vegetable puree but the recipe is a great base well suited to a cold winters night like were having right now.

Enjoy, remember they’re  good for your heart!

Venison with black beans and celeriac

Braised Black Beans

125g                       dried black beans
2 cups                    water
2 cloves                 garlic – peeled and crushed
½ onion                chopped
500g                       pickled pork hocks
½                            chorizo sausage – diced
½ teaspoon          paprika
½ teaspoon          chili powder
1 teaspoon            cumin – ground
½                           bay leaf
2 cups                    white stock – chicken or pork
Seasoning to taste

Method

  • Place black beans and water in large pot and soak overnight or cover with water and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for 1 hour.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, cover and simmer until the meat and beans are just tender.
  • Serve as below with some rice and steamed greens as a simple meal or shred the meat through the beans and use it as the base for something altogether grander as above.

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Suppa Zuppa

Free Range - Acrylic on Canvas - Jo McNamara 2015

The cold weather of recent days has had me thinking about soup. Always a great warming stand by, offering some of the most diverse dishes available, limited really only  by ones imagination. Of course traditionally in addition to providing warming nourishment, these “wet” foods would have provided much of ones daily liquid intake, and I clearly remember as a young chef being told by my first mentor, a chef of Indian extraction that we didn’t “eat” enough liquid in the west and to be honest he was right.

Our western diet today tends to be over processed and “dry”  with moisture ironically provided by bottled water or other beverages. By comparison Southern India has broth in the form of thin clear rasam at the centre of its cuisine. Take “Milagu Thanni” or pepper water for example, unfortunately we probably know it as the anglicized Mulligatawny, a heavy, creamy curried chicken soup thickened with rice and garnished with apple, but this is a far cry from the original almost  clear, spicy, tomato, tamarind and curry leaf broth that aids digestion and helps with hydration.

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Of course right now because of the Paleo fad and the fuss that has surrounded the bone broth craze, there is renewed interest in nutritious stocks and consommés. But nutritious broths are nothing new, every carnivorous culture knows and has valued the restorative power of soup (this is supposedly how the term Restaurant was first coined, but that’s a story for another day). In Victorian Britain, Eliza Beeton recommended Beef Tea for invalids, the famous Chicken Soup of Eastern European/Ashkenazic tradition and so beloved in my Barossa homeland (albeit with noodles instead of matzo balls) is often referred to as Jewish Penicillin and the Vietnamese pay great attention to the health and strength given properties of a long simmered Pho.

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More to the point our modern English word soup comes from the old English “Sop” to soak bread in liquid, which in turn is related to “Sup” meaning to swallow and certainly soaking stale country bread in hot broth made these early soups thicker and more filling. Continuing on this theme, some of the worlds best known national dishes are really soups or soupy stews, for example: Bouillabaise, Minestra, Gulyas, Borscht, Cock a leekie, Waterzoi, Chowder and the list goes on, but the  thing these all have in common is that they were originally simple peasant foods, basic dishes that formed the basis of most meals.

Today’s blog is about one such soup, one definitely not as well known as any of the soups mentioned above, but absolutely and fundamentally peasant in origin. I am talking of the Italian classic Zuppa Pavese. Hailing from Pavia, near Milan in Northern Italy. Romantic legend has it that it was created in the early 1500’s by a peasant farmer for the then King Francis I of France who was fleeing a defeat in the battle of Pavia, though this is highly unlikely seeing as he was captured on the battlefield, nice story though…

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As far as my history with this soup is concerned, I first came across it as a young chef dining at a tiny, rustic, Italian restaurant in Adelaide in the 1970’s, the type with gingham table cloths and ruffina flasks as candle sticks.  I recall it was both cheap and the special of the day and completely unknown to me, but to my surprise it was a revelation remaining a personal favourite to this day.

Simply put it is perfect for lunch or a light “Supper” being very quick and easy. To prepare it, take a good slice of crusty country style bread, fry it in butter until crisp and golden on both sides, place in a heated bowl, break a couple of very fresh eggs  on top, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pour well flavoured,  boiling broth over to just set the eggs and serve immediately…. nothing too it really!.

Sure it’s not modernist cuisine, though I am sure someone out there will have by now put together a ludicrous deconstructed version with a “40 minute sous vide egg, buttered sour dough gravel, parmesan foam and gelatin filtered consommé” . Of course in its own way that idea ’s not very different from Escoffier listing a recipe for “Mille –Fanti” in his Guide Culinaire. This was an Italian inspired egg drop soup made with strong consommé, eggs, bread and parmesan, precisely the same ingredients as Zuppa Pavese and one can only wonder if the Thousand Footmen of the name is another reference to Francis’s and his army.

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No, for me Zuppa Pavese  is a perfect example of a simple peasant dish that to succeed only needs great ingredients and absolutely no embellishment. Now my poor old dad would have never come at this, the thought of what he would call a “snotty egg” being just too much, and another very good chef friend of mine will probably be equally repulsed at the thought of a “soppy, soggy croute”. But this soup is a restorative in every possible way. The protein of the egg, gelatinous broth and umami rich cheese combining with the butter fried bread to make a simple and honest, healthy and hearty meal, seriously can good food be any easier?

Buon Appetito

Zuppa Pavese – per person

200ml                chicken stock- well seasoned– recipe following
2 teaspoons       butter
1 slice                  day old crusty bread
1 or 2                  eggs – very fresh & at room temperature
2 tablespoons   Parmesan cheese – grated

Method

  • Warm bowl(s) with boiling water and place eggs in bowl to warm slightly

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  • Bring stock to a simmer and ensure it is well seasoned
  • Pan fry bread until golden on both sides, drain water from serving dish

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  • Place fried bread in the base of bowl, crack egg(s)onto bread and sprinkle with half the parmesan
  • Ladle boiling stock into bowl and over egg – stock must be boiling rapidly

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  • Cover bowl with a lid or plate for 30 seconds, remove, add remaining parmesan and serve

Chicken stock

1kg      chicken bones
1kg      chicken wings
1           carrot
1 stick  celery
2          onions
1          bay leaf
6          peppercorns
20g     parsley stalks
1.7      litres water
Sprig thyme

Method

  • Rinse bones and wings well, place in a pressure cooker with all other ingredients
  • Close and seal vessel, bring to pressure and cook following safety instructions for 20 minutes.
  • After cooking time is complete, follow your appliances safety procedures to reduce pressure and only open when fully depressurised.
  • Strain through a fine filter, allow to settle for 10 minutes and remove as much fat as possible from the surface and reserve for later use.

Note: if not using pressure cooker, use recipe but increase water to 3.5 litres, bring to a simmer uncovered and cook very gently for 3 hours, strain and reduce by boiling to 1200ml