Did I mention I love beans? Love. I fell hard for them years ago. It was a humble pot of pinto beans that did it, and there was no turning back.
Those fabled pintos were my induction into the glory of Phaseolus vulgaris—the common bean. Simmered slowly and gently with an onion and a chunk of bacon, the beans took on a velvety, creamy consistency. They were served on a plate with a ladleful of rich bean broth and a square of just-baked cornbread. This was nothing like cafeteria three-bean salad, or the sweet baked beans from a can I'd been served as a kid. This was deep, nurturing, primal.
From there it was an easy step to black beans with onions and cilantro or smashed cannellini beans on toasted garlic bread. And every other kind of bean in every kind of fashion.
When I ran a restaurant in Santa Fe, we bought dried beans from the most famous farmer in the area, Elizabeth Berry. All the beans she grew were decidedly uncommon. There were dozens of varieties, simply staggering to observe, with paint-speckled exteriors in unbelievable jewel-like hues. The multi-colored beans have names like Anasazi or Jacob's Cattle or Appaloosa. Calypso, or Goat's Eye (Ojo de Cabra), Snowcap, Orca, Dragon Tongue. All make a fine pot of beans, each a distinct, singular dish. Sadly, though, when cooked, all the incredible markings disappear, losing their color to the broth.
A quick overview on the life of a bean: A dried bean is planted in the spring. In the warm moist soil, a tiny but sturdy bean sprout emerges, its leaves unfurling fiercely in a primordial gesture. Warm weather and sunshine cause the bean vines to make flowers, which become little green pods. If allowed to stay on the vine past the green-bean stage to maturity, the beans within the pods become full-size shelling beans. You start seeing many of them at the market in mid to late summer—cranberry beans, butter beans, fresh cannellini, and other types. These cook more quickly than dried beans and have the loveliest creamy texture. But when the pod is left to dry, its contents become wintertime meals and next year's seeds.
The main thing to know about cooking dried beans is that new-crop beans taste fresher and cook more evenly than beans of uncertain vintage, like the commodity beans sold at the supermarket, where they have lain for who knows how long. It's better to buy your dried beans at a farmers' market or online from Rancho Gordo or Purcell Mountain Farms. You'll pay a little more for these heirloom varieties, but even a splurge on good beans will never break the bank.
For a winter meal, beans are perfect, whether in a savory bread-crumb-topped bean gratin; in a pasta finished in bean broth with rosemary, olive oil, and a little pork fat for deeper flavor; as a creamy bean soup with wilted greens; or as a salad, dressed with oil, vinegar, and red onion. These are all dishes that deserve spending a bit more for a pound bag of beans, the main and most important ingredient.
As for canned beans, they have their place, I suppose, like during emergencies or on a camping trip. Yes, they're convenient, but their flavor never satisfies like beans cooked from scratch. I always visualize a giant impersonal bean-canning factory, with tons of hair-netted workers operating the hulking machines that deposit 14 ounces of beans into hundreds of cans per minute on a conveyor belt that stretches far into the distance.
Me? I far prefer the notion of nursed-along beans at home. It's a love thing.