I’m always looking to cook beans in a hearty application that doesn’t involve meat. After all, beans are a protein on their own. From lentils to split peas to baked beans with ginger, chipotle and hoisin, this has offered varied and delicious results. Why am I doing this? I have no idea, I’m not even a vegetarian. I just want to see how best it can be done.
Because in our culture at least, beans are often cooked with flavorful bits and pieces of meat, like bacon. I’ll admit they are a mild-tasting legume, definitely something you’d want to absorb as much flavor as their little pebble-shaped bodies can take. This dish gives them the sweetness of caramelized onions and the spiciness of mustard, with butter and herbs. Simple, yet something new.
I’ve got runner beans to begin with, not your average white bean. Bloated to almost the size of lima beans, they’re similar to smaller white beans in taste and mealy texture (which is kind of like a baked potato when cooked). Rather than whip ’em up, which would be pretty yummy, I thought leaving them whole would be make for a satisfying bite.
Mustard has been on the mind a lot lately. I can’t seem to get enough of Anna’s My Friend’s Mustard, with its spoon-licking good globules of whole mustard grains. She was kind enough to offer tastes of her newly launched mustard line at the last Hungry Filmmakers two weeks ago, to go along with the sausages that Jimmy’s No. 43 brought in. Alas, it was a marriage made in heaven, mustard with meat. But what about with beans?
For these beans, I didn’t actually use My Friend’s Mustard, but Wendy Smith’s SchoolHouse Kitchen Sweet Smooth Hot mustard instead. It’s totally different, the opposite end of the spectrum from whole grain mustard, with its rich, silken creaminess and sweetness that reminds me of raw honey. I decided that it would be great for cooking with. If you don’t have SchoolHouse Kitchen mustard honey, I recommend using any Dijon, which is also mild-tasting, sweet and very smooth.
the extra-big beans soaked, and ready to cook
Because of their size, the runner beans need a pretty long time to cook before you do anything else. It’s also recommended that they sit overnight in enough water to soak them completely (without running out as they plump up). Cover these beans in about three inches or more of water, and let them sit in the fridge for a night like this. The next day, rinse, and cook gently for 1-1/2-2 hours. Just until they’re moderately soft, as they still have time to cook with the other ingredients yet.
It’s a good idea to begin caramelizing your onions during the last half hour of cooking the beans, as they’ll need time (mostly inactive, too) to become golden brown but still soft. The key to caramelizing onions is to keep the heat extra low and have a heavy-bottomed pan that promotes even heat. Then, take a look at it every now and then and stir infrequently — time and low heat is the only thing that’ll make them wilt to a sweet sludge.
The last step is combining the beans, onions and seasonings in an oven-safe pan, and adding a splash of water or stock just to cover. Let this bake to allow the flavors to blend for about 1 hour, or more as desired. You can probably skip the baking step if you’re raring to eat this dish, but getting it all cooked into the beans, rather all around it, is the goal.
This was a great meatless main course, or a hearty side to any dinner plate. After eating it like that once, though, I turned the rest of the leftovers into a soup by just adding more stock, and simmering it for a while. Tasted like French onion soup, but with beans.
Runner Beans with Caramelized Onions & Mustard Sauce
(makes 4-6 side servings)
2 cups dry runner beans, soaked in water overnight
2 medium onions, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard (or your favorite type)
herbes de provence: thyme, rosemary, sage, basil, marjoram, parsley, or any combination of them, preferably fresh (dried is okay)
2-3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the beans and fill with cold water to cover by 2 inches in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook, covered, for 1-1/2 hours, or until tender.
Meanwhile, heat the onions in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or chef’s pan over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until caramelized. Season with salt and pepper along the way.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir together the beans, onions, mustard, herbs and stock in an oven-safe pan, Dutch oven, or casserole. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes, or until liquid has mostly absorbed, and serve.
(for 4-6 side servings)
2 cups runner beans (from Seed Savers Exchange at $25/5 lb bag): $2.00
2 onions (from $2 bag of 4 at Phillips Farm at Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket): $1.00
2 tablespoons butter (at $4/pint): $0.25
3 tablespoons mustard (begotten somehow free from SchoolHouse Kitchen, but guesstimating): $0.50
2-3 cups homemade vegetable stock: $1.00
assorted herbs (from garden): $1.00
salt and pepper: $0.05
Four brownie points: Overlooking for a moment the astoundingly cheap total above for the cost of these ingredients, mostly from “organic” or “artisanal” sources, let’s look at how healthy this dish is for your super-stressed, city slicker body that’s all too often running on empty. Beans are what you need! More so than meat, beans fill up an appetite thanks to its natural starches, so they’re sort of like a combination of meat and potatoes in one. But they also provide your body with protein, especially helpful in times of sickness of just cold-weather blues. That’s about all I can say about this dish, since it doesn’t really have much veggie power beyond the fiber, iron and folate present in just the beans.
Seven brownie points: I often find myself wondering, in the supermarket aisle, is it really worth my dollar to buy organic dried beans from folks I know (Cayuga Organics, for example), when there are these super-cheap Goya beans (for example) that look, smell and taste more or less like the same thing? Well, there are a few reasons. Beans from more local sources are often fresher, while beans that were shipped in from who knows where who knows how long ago and stored for how long can be, quite possibly, stored for several years before you tear open their plastic bags. That, you can tell by cooking time. The other reason is just that, well, if there’s a bean producer you like and trust, and want to support and proliferate their business because they, for example, provide unusual beans for the average consumer, like runner beans, then do it. That’s what I did for Seed Savers Exchange, whose impressive heirloom bean collection is entertainment for me to just look at.