The Magical Fruit

  THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY Sept. 29 – Oct. 5 2004• Vol. 38, No. 53
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The magical fruit
Four ways to cook beans bursting with flavor.

By Karen Solomon

ANY SELF- appointed Martha of the Mission knows beans and legumes equal dinner. They're dirt cheap, available everywhere, and environmentally responsible, and one pot can either feed you for a week or sate a crowd. The problem with these tiny vittles is that more often than not, when eaten from a can or boiled into oblivion, they're bland as pebbles and rely on a barrage of disguising ingredients – hot sauce, cheese, animal fat, cream, etc. – for body and flavor. Here I propose tasting a few variations, from five-minute quickies to all-day simmers, that have perhaps "bean" overlooked before.

Mock chopped liver

OK, I hate the name of this one, but this is what my mother calls it, and frankly I can't come up with anything better (I'm open to your suggestions). It won't fool anyone as a flavor replacer for the real deal, but it does sort of look like Jewish chopped liver, and your vegan and vegetarian friends will love it as a great cocktail-absorber at your next shindig. One note of warning: This one tends to dirty up a lot of dishes. Eat it on a cracker, bubbeleh.

You will need:
3 large yellow onions
2 Tbs vegetable oil
A pinch of sugar
1 cup of brown lentils (dry)
1 bay leaf
1 cup of walnuts
3 eggs (optional, if you want to keep it vegan)
Salt and pepper

Chop the onions into same-size strips. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high flame and add the oil. Once it's hot and shimmering (after about 2 or 3 minutes), add the onions and sugar and stir to coat. Keep stirring them every so often for about 10 minutes, letting as much moisture evaporate as possible. Lower the heat to medium and give them a stir every few minutes. After about 30 minutes, you'll have a mass of brown, sticky, caramelized onions.

In the meantime, in another pot, boil about five cups of salted water over high heat. Once the boil breaks, add the lentils, the bay leaf, and a teaspoon of salt. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils (yes, the colander will be another thing to wash) and compost the bay leaf.

While the beans simmer, boil a small pot of salted water. Carefully add the three eggs to the boiling water, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Drain the eggs and run under cold water until they're cool enough to handle, then shell them.

Still have any pans left? Good, you'll need one more. While you're doing all of the above, heat the toaster oven or regular oven to 400 degrees. Scatter the walnuts in a single layer on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and toast five to seven minutes, until brown but not burnt (if they turn from brown to black, they'll taste officially yucky).

I curse you with one more kitchen utensil to soil. Combine all of the above into a food processor, and season with salt and pepper to taste. The result will look thick and brown but taste wonderful and transformed. You're now entitled to a bar mitzvah.

White beans with sage and lots of garlic

This is a classic Italian combination, and since it uses canned beans and few ingredients, it can be whipped up in minutes. It's delicious as a stand-alone side dish or tossed with pasta. Or puree the whole thing in a food processor for an easy dip for bread or vegetables.

You will need:
1 15 oz. can small white beans (cannellini, navy – anything white but lima)
4 garlic cloves
1 very large handful of fresh sage (about � cup loosely packed)
� cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

Drain the beans, rinse well under running water, and drain well again (if you like, you can dry them more quickly with a clean dish towel, if you can find one). Transfer to a mixing bowl.

Thinly slice the garlic; don't use a garlic press. De-stem the sage.

Put a small frying pan on medium heat and add the oil. Let it warm for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and the sage. Don't daydream; the worst taste in the world is burnt garlic. Stir constantly until the garlic is brown and the sage crispy, just 4 minutes.

Pour the hot oil mixture over the beans and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Roasted garbanzos

Cookbook author Mark Bittman gave me the idea to eat garbanzos like peanuts. A cheap-ass roasted can of beans, coated in garlic, oil, and whatever spice you have in your pantry (cayenne, cumin, curry powder, nutritional yeast) develops a delicious flavor and nutty texture. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice after cooking, if you like. Eat these as-is or serve them on a salad. Or if you're in a bean dip mood, whirl the whole thing into a paste (along with four or five tablespoons of tahini and about quarter cup of water); the result is a hummus with the nuttier flavor of the roasted beans and the mellow, sweet essence of the roasted garlic.

You will need:
1 15 oz. can of garbanzos (a.k.a. chickpeas or ceci beans)
2-3 Tbs olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 tsp of the spice(s) of your choice (optional – but if you're using nutritional yeast, don't add it until after the beans finish cooking)
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Drain the beans, rinse well under running water, and drain well again.

Pour the oil into a shallow baking dish large enough to accommodate all the beans in a single layer. Add the beans, salt and pepper, whatever spice you choose, and the garlic clove, smashed through a press. Stir really well to coat the beans.

When the oven reaches 400 degrees, roast the beans. Stir after 10 minutes, then roast for 10 minutes more.

Remove from the oven, and stir well, scraping up the bottom to make sure nothing sticks. Taste and wonder why you've never eaten these before.

Savory black beans

I grew up in Florida eating Cuban-style black beans. This recipe is about a million times better than just plain ol' black beans from a can, but it does need a long time to sit and think about how delicious it's going to be. I strongly suggest you make this a day ahead, but since the recipe yields a vat of beans, you'll get to eat it today and tomorrow (and likely the next day – you'll be pleased to know it freezes like a champ). Eat this straight up or over rice, or even cold with nacho chips.

You will need:
1 lb. dried black beans
1 large yellow onion
1 large red or green pepper (or 2 small ones)
3 Tbs vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs dried oregano (or 2 Tbs fresh)
1 Tbs cumin
1 Tbs cayenne (or as much or as little as you like)
Salt and pepper
Juice of one fresh lime

Simmer the beans in a large stockpot for one hour.

While the pot is bubbling away, very finely chop the onion and peppers.

Drain the beans, rinse well, and set aside. Rinse out the pot, and dry it.

Heat the pot to medium-high and add the oil. When it shimmers, add the onions and peppers and let them soften for about 13 minutes, stirring occasionally. Either finely chop the garlic or pass it through a press, add to pot, and cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes more.

Quickly add the tomatoes, then return the beans to the pot, along with three cans full of water. Add the bay leaf, oregano, cumin, cayenne, a tablespoon of salt, and plen
ty of pepper. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and let simmer, covered, for two hours or more.

Mash the beans a bit with a potato masher and adjust the seasoning (not just salt and pepper, but also the cayenne). Turn off the heat and stir in the lime juice. Invite friends over to share the wealth.

E-mail Karen Solomon

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