Monday, June 26, 2006

Franks and Beans, Somewhat Updated

Yes, friends, this is what it has come to. While other food bloggers were unveiling the secrets of the pastry recipes of the Knights Templar (yes, A. did drag me to see The DaVinci Code this weekend: the horror) or reading ancient treatises on the proper roasting of game in the original Aramaic, I was stuck in the hinterlands of rural Pennsylvania, the filling in a generational sandwich of a vacation that included my parents and my daughters, trying to cook something that would meet both A.'s current dietary restrictions and everyone else's gustatory requirements.

I should say that the hinterlands of rural Pennsylvania are especially beautiful and that we had a great time there, and I would even now be posting pictures of the breathtaking landscape except that the digital camera is still in the glove compartment of my car, and I'm afraid to go outside these days because there is about a 75% chance of getting caught in a torrential downpour and being dragged out to sea. The weather in PA was mostly pretty nice, though.

I am not a big fan of traditional franks and beans, but it's entirely the fault of the beans because I love the hot dog. Mostly I love the hot dog in a bun with copious amounts of mustard, but there is no reason at all to look down one's nose at a decent frankfurter, though there is no disputing the fact that most of the franks that appear at the market are decidedly indecent.

Back to the beans, though. I have never liked baked beans very much. I have developed the ability to tolerate them when someone makes them right, but no one makes them right. People open a can and think that by the judicious application of extra ingredients, they can make a silk purse of a sow's ear. (One presumes that I am speaking figuratively when I mention a sow's ear, but with canned baked beans, one never knows, do one?) By soaking your own dried beans and by adding significant amounts of sausage and keeping the tomato products to a minimum, you can make something very good indeed, but no one would call it baked beans.

Canned (or, more accurately, tinned) baked beans are a big deal in England, and I have to say that I really don't get it. If you order a full English breakfast (don't), you will get a lot of good food accompanied by a pile of tinned baked beans. It's as if the plate was about to go out to the table, and someone slapped the cook and said, "Hey, we're British; our food sucks, remember!" and she dumped some beans on the plate to compensate.

I think I have that out of my system now, but of course this site is never a rant-free zone, so just keep your fingers crossed.

Black beans have long been my bean of choice, and even when you're stuck in the hinterlands of rural PA, provided you have a decent selection of spices, you can make good black beans. I can't make good black beans without a decent smoked meat product, and while a hamhock is usually the addition of choice, frankfurters turn out to work pretty well.

This is a very simple recipe, but when you're in a rural area and (just maybe) trying to avoid spending yet more time listening to one of your parents talk about ancient grievances involving members of his or her family whom you don't know very well, you have a lot of time to contemplate a recipe. Relatively simple changes in almost any ingredient will make a significant difference in how this recipe turns out. The kind of onion you use matters. Whether you puree or mince your garlic matters. How much water you use matters a great deal. At the same time (because nothing is ever simple), it's pretty good no matter which choice you make with any ingredient: it's just good in a significantly different way.

Franks and Beans

One pound dried black beans
1 T. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. celery seed
Ground pepper
4 c. water
1 envelope chicken bouillon

The night before you plan to serve the dish, put the black beans in a large bowl or other vessel, and cover them with several inches of water. Let soak overnight.

The next day, rinse and drain the beans thoroughly.

In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook covered, about five minutes, until soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the cumin, celery seed, and black pepper to taste. Add the drained beans and stir. Add the water and the bouillon and stir again. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and simmer for about an hour or an hour and a half, until the beans are almost tender.

Add the frankfurters, return to the simmer, and cook about another half hour, or until the beans are tender and the mixture is thick. Add salt if necessary.

You can use a bouillon cube if that's what you have, but the envelopes of bouillon that come in the ethnic section of the supermarket are much better. I have no idea how my parents came to have this in their pantry, but I'm glad they did.

I much prefer all-beef frankfurters in this recipe. Hebrew National franks are very good, but large, all-beef Oscar Mayer franks are also very good. The amount of hot dogs you use is up to you, but one one-pound package or two twelve-ounce packages work very well. If you're serving this to a ten-year-old child, it is a good idea to have hot dog buns on hand and to not be too upset if she refuses to so much as try your black beans. She'll learn when she's older.

There is considerable debate among cooks as to the best way to cook beans. Many people will tell you that salt in the cooking water keeps the beans from ever becoming tender, so you should add salt after the cooking is done. My experience indicates that the significant amount of salt in the bouillon does not keep the beans from becoming tender, but I don't want to argue with serious bean chefs, so I'm just leaving that up to you. If you think salt is a problem, don't add either the bouillon or the franks until the beans are tender. In any case, taste carefully, because if you used the bouillon packets and the larger quantity of franks, you are unlikely to need additional salt.

I am similarly unwilling to wade into the to-soak-or-not-to-soak debate. I like soaking my beans overnight (partially because the soaked beans are visually appealing and fun to cook with), but if you want to just cook them directly from their dried state, simply simmer them for a longer period of time. You may have some opinions about the gastrointestinal consequences of soaking or not soaking, but we are not going there.

You can turn this into a soup and sandwich deal by adding an extra two cups of water and fishing out the franks at the end to serve in buns. I prefer my black beans on the thicker side, and one of my favorite things about cooking them is waiting for the time when they still have much of their shape but have started to release some of their starch so that the pot liquor gets nice and thick.

If you have the supplies and the interest, you can add other stuff to this recipe. You could omit some or all of the celery seed and replace the onion with a mirepoix, or you could keep the celery seed and just add some carrots during the cooking period. If I had been cooking this only for myself, I would have added a teaspoon or so of red pepper flakes.

I'm sure the English would not approve, but A. enjoyed some of the leftover black beans for breakfast one morning.


Blogger goblinbox said...

You may not care, but the secret to making good beans without the aid of a smoked dead animal product tends to be smoked chipotles. And careful spicing.

7:48 PM  

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