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A call to join the navy bean flotilla

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

"After you been eatin' steak for a while,
"Beans, beans taste fine."

-- Brothers Four song

Pick over the beans. The first time my mother ever assigned me that job, I felt clueless, despite the many times I had seen her bend over a bowl of navy beans at our white enamel kitchen table edged with red trim. It didn't take her long to separate the good beans from the bad. "Ping! Ping! Ping!" The dry white beans would hit the aluminum pot with rhythm. The bad ones were clunkers.

There is a method for it, and if you grew up on a navy bean farm, as I did, you'd better learn how. In case such a command would horn-swoggle you, here is the well-tested Garner Farms method:

Grab a handful of beans. On the farm, before they ever come into the kitchen, the beans would have been run over a wire screen to remove any dirt or debris, or at least most of it. So, where were we? Oh, yes, grab a handful of beans and spread them over your open palm. With your other hand, pick out the rare piece of soil or any bean with a dark spot. Toss out the culls. Meanwhile, the best beans slip through your fingers into the pot. Listen to that Ping! Ping! Ping!

Whether to remove a split bean or not seems to be a function of economic times. In a good year for beans, the rare split is quickly discarded. In one particularly bad harvest year, when many of our Michigan farm's navies blackened from too much rain at the wrong time, Mom chided me for tossing the splits.

"You'll never get enough for a pot," she warned. (Splits taste fine; they're just not as pretty.)

My cousin's high school boyfriend always joked that there was a dish of baked beans at every family gathering, but if we didn't eat them, who would? Our daughter, Jessica, a family loyalist, puts on a face longer than a hot, humid July day if she discovers there are no baked beans on the menu. But her grandmother usually has some secreted in the freezer, so she can bring those out. My brother, Jon, pines for the day that McDonald's will drop a scoop full of beans aside each Big Mac, but it hasn't happened yet. So today you can buy a bushel of beans for next to nothing. And that's retail.

A 16-ounce bag of navy beans at the supermarket cost me $1.89, which was 10 cents less than the fresh rosemary. Meanwhile, the going rate for a hundred pounds of beans is $9.50, compared to the $20 our parents got in the 1970s.

"On our farm, beans are 9 1/2 cents a pound today," says my brother, who clings to the memory of one glorious year when the price miraculously went up to $36. And, in 2001, a drought meant there was no bean check at all. Last month, I was part of an American Association of University Women-sponsored Great Issues discussion about food. The group met at the Northland Library, where one participant remarked that the kind of food we all like best is the kind our mothers and grandmothers made for us. I agree.

For me, there is no greater joy than getting a whiff of navy beans baking. When I was a girl, beans weren't as cheap, but we had lots of them, so my dad bought a bean cooker and boiled them up for the cows. Beans are a good source of carbohydrates and protein, and nobody then worried about cows' spewing methane gas around. In fact, no cow I knew would ever bellow for Bean-O. Once a body's intestinal tract, bovine or human, is acclimated to beans, its owner is home free.

The bean cooker was in the alleyway in front of the cows' manger, and it tilted, so my dad or the hired man could easily pour beans from the cooker into a cart and present a big scoop to each cow. They'd stand in the stanchions and lick their chops, then washed their beans down with water from their own little automatic fresh water bowl.

Boy, those cow beans smelled great!

When Dad first got the cooker (it was the only cooking he ever did), I would beg him to let me have a bowlful, never mind that humans might require more stringent sanitation practices than cows, which have a sophisticated digestive system with stomachs that can turn alfalfa and clover into cream.

"I know the beans smell good, Lefty," Dad would says, "but you wouldn't like them -- they don't have a box of brown sugar and a pound of side pork in them like your mother's."

As a food editor, I've made it my own little campaign to increase navy bean consumption. I once went so far as to make Bean Pizza, though my family hooted me out of the room.

I think I may have found the ticket with Rick Rodgers' recipe for Orangey Rosemary Beans. Na-turally, I opted to use navy rather than Great Northern, as Rodgers' recipe does in "The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals That Cook Themselves."

I loved these beans, which are redolent with rosemary, one of my favorite herbs, and onions. They're sweetened with orange marmalade and brown sugar with a little hint of mustard. This delicious dish proves once and for all -- vegetarians will celebrate -- that you don't need meat to make good beans.

Orangey Rosemary Beans

  • 1 pound dried Great Northern beans, rinsed, drained and picked over

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup orange marmalade
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, combine the beans (we used navy beans) and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover the pot and let stand for 1 hour; drain well. (The beans can also be soaked overnight in a large bowl with enough water to cover by 2 inches, then drained.)

Return the beans to the pot and add enough fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the beans are almost tender, about 40 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the cooking liquid. (The beans can be prepared up to 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate the beans and the cooking liquid separately.)

In a 3 1/2-quart slow cooker, combine the reserved 2 cups cooking liquid, the onion, marmalade, brown sugar, mustard, rosemary, salt and pepper. Stir in the drained beans. Cover and slow-cook until the beans are very tender, 8 to 9 hours on low. During the last hour of cooking, increase the heat to high and uncover to evaporate excess liquid.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

"The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals That Cook Themselves" by Rick Rodgers

Beef Goulash Pot

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (more if needed)
  • 1 pound boneless beef bottom round, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 2 medium boiling potatoes, scrubbed, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds
  • 2 2/3 cups double-strength beef broth, canned or homemade
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • Sour cream, for garnish

In large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the beef in batches, without crowding, and cook, turning often, until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate and season with the salt and pepper.

Add more oil to the skillet, if necessary, and heat. Add the onion and bell pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, garlic, paprika and caraway seeds and stir for 1 minute.

Place the potatoes in the bottom of a 3 1/2-quart slow cooker. Add the beef and the vegetable mixture. Pour in the beef broth, water and tomato puree. Cover and slow-cook until the beef is tender, 6 to 7 hours on low.

Serve like soup in individual bowls, topping each serving with a dollop of sour cream. (We skipped the sour cream, and it was still good.)

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tester's note: We found no beef broth labeled "double-strength," so we used the Kitchen Basics brand.

PG tested recipes

"The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals That Cook Themselves " by Rick Rodgers

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at bsjmar2@aol.com

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