Cooking Beans is a Quiet Defiance of Our Convenience-Obsessed Culture

In an era obsessed with efficiency, cooking beans makes a case taking your time. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

I don’t know what took me so long to start cooking beans, but 2019 was the year I couldn’t stop.

I’d enjoyed legumes of many different sizes and colors in my dining experiences, but aside from my trusted lentils, I never bothered to prepare beans at home, writing them off as too much work. Instead, I stocked cans of fava beans to make ful for breakfast and, on occasion, I’d buy canned white beans that served as non-perishable protein provisions rather than thoughtful meals. But last year, after cooking my first pot of beans, what seemed like a daunting task became a ritual that reframed my understanding of time. 

Beans seem as old as time itself. Found inside Aztec and ancient Egyptian tombs, the much-fabled bean is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, beans have acquired reputations both as sources of life and death (the latter may be due to the naturally occurring toxins in their undercooked form).

When I hold a handful of beans these days, I often feel in awe of the history they contain. Like looking up at the stars in the night, beans make me feel both small and connected to something much bigger than I can grasp. 

A few varieties of beans from Rancho Gordo's heirloom farm including pinto, cranberry and scarlet runners.
A few varieties from Rancho Gordo's heirloom bean farm including pinto, cranberry and scarlet runners. (Grace Cheung)

My year of cooking beans was partially spurred by my friend Rebecca, who shares my love of a well balanced, home-cooked meal, and encouraged me to make them from scratch. I remember the ease with which she described soaking and making them now as I evangelize to others about how simple it really is.

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I made my first pot of beans last summer from half a bag of cannellinis that I forgetfully left soaking in the fridge for over 24 hours. Beans are a forgiving food, so after I rinsed them (a controversial move: some like to cook them in the soaking water, but I prefer not to), I threw them in a large pot along with a good hit of olive oil, some sprigs of thyme, dried chili peppers and several smashed cloves of garlic. I stirred my pot and left it covered in intervals, tasting the broth for salt and flavor, and finally topping it off with a sliver of butter for a luxurious touch of fat. They were the best beans I’d ever had.

A couple days later, before finishing the leftovers from that first pot, I subscribed to Napa heirloom bean farm Rancho Gordo’s very popular and often waitlisted bean club. Once my first shipment of six varieties of beans arrived, I spent the next few months cooking beans once a week, playing out every possibility I could think of with them. With the gorgeously spotted, dark purple scarlet runners, I pared down the broth so I could better enjoy their chew. The incredibly creamy texture of caballeros, a pearly white bean from Peru, paired well with toasted bread and a squeeze of lemon. I used fish sauce and pecorino rinds to add umami, and I threw in as many different combinations of herbs and leafy greens as I could imagine. 

 

A pot full of cannellini beans with herbs and spices.
A pot full of soaked cannellini beans with herbs and spices. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

When I share my beans or my love for them with others, the first response is always about how long they take to cook. I can’t fault people. Time has become a precious commodity, and same-day delivery has become a symbol of modernity. Recipes often list time above the ingredients, and those with shorter preparation and cooking times are highlighted for their efficiency.

Bean recipes to take your time with

But the truth is, time hasn’t changed—we have.  For my part, I can’t name a single thing I’ve sacrificed in order to make time for my beloved legumes.

Cooking beans has made me wonder if time instead belongs in the ingredients list of a recipe instead of floating above it as a measure of duration. Two cups of beans, eight hours in water while we go to work, rest or tend to our lives. If these humble legumes have been here for some millennia, what's a few hours in a water bath while you do what you will?