Remember when I wrote about cranberry beans last summer? Intrigued by this bean with a curious name and deep pink marbling, I bought a couple pounds of the fresh beans and set out to discover all the wonders fresh beans had to offer. It didn’t take me long to realize that as much as I like the idea of fresh beans, I’m not a fan of shelling beans. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d rather not shell beans: the vendor at the Farmers Market who sold fresh cranberry and fava beans last summer is now selling bags of the beans dried. “Dollar a bag! Dollar bag!” he calls out, referring to the bags of beans purposefully arranged next to the weighing-scale and cashbox. Like kids in the grocery store checkout line, we’re sold on these last-minute sundries and indulge in an impulse buy: two bags of dried cranberry beans.
Why all this talk about cranberry beans when this post is supposed to be about borlotti beans? Well, they happen to be the same bean. When I’m referring to a recipe, I like to call the beans borlotti beans instead of cranberry beans because the word “cranberry” can bring about some inaccurate connotations (I, for one, can’t stop thinking about cranberry sauce when I hear the words “cranberry beans”).
In his cookbook How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman claims that dried beans are superior to canned beans. I was skeptical. Canned beans are so convenient, I thought, dried beans better have something amazing going for them. According to Bittman, that amazing something is the bean’s cooking liquid (and price). Really? Could this dirty-looking water be that flavorful? Yes, in fact, it can. I discovered this quite by mistake when I was cooking borlotti beans to use in another recipe yesterday. I added a sage leaf and some salt and let the beans simmer while I paid attention to my other more-important cooking projects. When it was time to use the beans, I tasted them and was astounded how rich and flavorful they were. There was a subtle hint of sage, the beans were creamy inside and the cooking liquid was as hefty and rich as any beef broth. These beans weren’t going in my other project; there were going straight to the dinner table. Up until yesterday, I had been tossing the beans into tomato sauces to give them flavor; I never realized how flavorful the beans were in themselves, in their own cooking liquid. Mark Bittman was right: dried beans really are superior to canned beans. These beans were a good reminder that convenience isn’t everything and sometimes a little extra effort goes a long way.
Dried beans aren’t nearly as convenient as canned beans, but the good news is that while the beans soak and cook they barely need to be attended. That’ll give you plenty of time to fold laundry or catch up on the DVR. Leftover cooked beans can be stored in their cooking liquid in the refrigerator or freezer.
Makes 5-6 cups cooked beans.
1 pound dried borlotti or cranberry beans, rinsed and picked over
1-2 sage leaves
Make the Borlotti Beans with Sage
Soaking: Put the beans in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid and cover with cold water by 2 to 3 inches. Bring to a boil and boil the beans, uncovered, for about 2 minutes. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Let the beans soak for about 2 hours.
Cooking: Taste a bean. If it’s tender (it won’t be done), add a large pinch of salt and the sage and make sure the beans are covered with about an inch of the soaking water. (If not, add a little water). If the beans are still raw, don’t add salt and sage yet and cover with about 2 inches of water.
Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the beans bubble gently. Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, checking the beans for doneness every 10 or 15 minutes, and adding a little more water if necessary. If you haven’t added salt and sage yet, add it when the beans are just turning tender. Stop cooking when the beans are done the way you like them, taste and adjust the seasoning, and use immediately or store.