Cranberry bean soup with potato, Swiss chard, and banger sausage from the Underground Food Collective

This soup is a textbook example of how a single ingredient can inspire a new creation. And, perhaps more importantly, how one can repurpose leftover ingredients to make something entirely new and completely delicious.

When I was at the Underground Food Collective’s butcher shop this past Saturday, I decided to buy a sausage to go with cranberry beans that I’d cooked earlier in the week. But I wasn’t sure which sausage to get or what to make. There were several options, including a Moroccan goat sausage and chorizo, both of which sounded good. But I decided to go with the English banger, a simpler, non-assertively flavored pork sausage. Then, when I came home from Madison, I put it away and pretty much forgot about it.

Sunday night, as dinner time approached, I looked in the fridge to see what was available. I’d been so caught up in blogging and cleaning and general business that I hadn’t even thought about planning for dinner. Plus I knew in the back of my head that there was plenty of food. But what?

As it turns out, I had about 2 cups of leftover cranberry beans with perhaps 3 cups of their cooking liquid. If you don’t have leftovers, here’s a link to my post on cooking basic beans. ( It’s easy.

Returning to my search for pre-cooked food, I also found about 1 cup of Swiss chard leftover from Sunday morning’s breakfast potato, apple, and fennel hash. Then, I noticed a single, lonely Yukon Gold potato on the counter, just on the verge of sprouting. It definitely needed to be used. Inspiration: I would riff on Portugese kale soup. Simple, easy, and sure to be delicious.

cranberry bean soupThis photo is from yesterday morning, when the soup was cold. Which I don’t recommend for either eating or photographing. Except when seen cold, it is evident that there’s almost no fat in this soup except for the sausage itself. Which is pretty cool.

I could have made it without the sausage, of course, and it would have been pretty good. In fact, the next time I have leftover beans, I probably will make a vegetarian version. With the sausage, however, it was absolutely brilliant, hearty and satisfying without being cloying. Plus the sausage inspired the soup, so I suppose the vegetarian version to come could not exist without the carnivorous mother. Here’s the recipe. If you try, I hope you like!

2 c. cooked cranberry beans, with cooking liquid or broth
1 medium sized Yukon gold potato, diced
1 c. cooked Swiss chard or other cooked greens, chopped
1 mildly-flavored sausage

1. Brown the sausage on all sides, for 7-10 minutes over medium-high heat.

2. Meanwhile, combine the beans, their cooking liquid or the broth, and the potatoes in a medium saucepan. Salt to taste, depending on how highly seasoned your cranberry beans are, and bring to a simmer. Add the sausage, cover, and cook on low for 15-20 minutes. Remove the sausage and transfer to a cutting board. Add the greens to the pot, cover, and turn off the heat. Wait 5 minutes or so and then slice the sausage into half rounds. Stir the sliced sausage into the soup. Serve with lightly toasted bread.

Inspiration, and bacon, from the Underground Food Collective

I’m making bacon. From the belly of a pig that I helped butcher yesterday. Before you go any further, be warned that this post contains some graphic images. I thought long and hard about including the photos but finally decided to go ahead. Because, really, that’s kind’ve the point of this post, to witness and appreciate the reality of turning an animal into food. I decided to take this class, to learn how to butcher an animal, because I realized recently that if I could not bear to witness the reality of turning an animal into food, I do not deserve to eat meat.

Even though this post is about meat, I’m starting off with this shot of my breakfast. pan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chardThis is pan roasted potato, apple, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard, a sort of breakfast hash that I concocted this morning out of random leftovers and produce that needed to be used. It seemingly has nothing in common with bacon. Except, I suppose that hash and bacon are both commonly listed on breakfast menus. In fact, however, they have everything in common, where both this concoction and the bacon that is curing in my refrigerator were created with carefully sourced ingredients that were combined with love, attention, and the intent to nourish body and soul.

Writing this post was hard for me. I didn’t know where to begin. In the end, I started with the vegetable hash for a couple of reasons. In part because I feel guilty about publishing images of dead animals, worried about causing undue suffering in anyone who sees  this post. Mostly, though, because this gorgeous dish was absolutely inspired by my meat-centric experience yesterday with Madison, Wisconsin’s Underground Food Collective ( Because it’s all connected. Really.

It would be dishonest to pretend away the differences, of course, most obviously the fact that unlike the bacon, no animal died in order for me to make this meal. In fact, this meal, which consists of nothing except potato, apple, fennel, swiss chard, olive oil, salt, pepper, and water, to blanch the greens, is vegan. But I’m guessing some animals were affected by it, somehow, someway. Because I did not grow or harvest this food. It came from somewhere else.

The reality is that the truck this food came in on could have hit a possum on the road. Or maybe the people who harvested the produce are grossly underpaid. Water, our most valuable resource, was undoubtedly wasted to make this food grow and get to to my table.

I could go on imagining a parade of horrors for days. But I can’t. That path does not lead anywhere good, at least not for me. I need to be able to eat. So I will not allow myself to continue. Instead, I will focus on doing the best that I can. Which, for me, as a selfish creature who derives enormous pleasure from eating delicious food, lacks discipline, and gets shaky without regular doses of animal protein, involves eating meat.

Truly, I don’t eat very much meat, at least compared to many. Indeed, my diet is pretty bean-centric. But I eat more meat than many others. Which is difficult. Because I recognize the ethical issues. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

It was this desire to stop being a hypocrite that led me to sign up for the Underground Food Collective’s Whole Hog class. ( The Underground Food Collective is a catering company, butcher shop/store, and restaurant, Forequarter, which, by the way, is a semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award. (

I haven’t eaten at any of the other semi-finalist restaurants, which is sad given that two are in Chicago. But I can attest that Forequarter’s food is out of this world good. Creative, fresh, lively, and ethical. So I was thrilled when I saw that the Underground Food Collective was offering classes. Especially when I finally got in–they sell out quickly. Which makes sense. Because they’re amazing. If you’re into such things. Speaking of which, note that the graphic photos are starting soon.

As the website explains, “[h]e goal of the classes is to provide a hands-on experience to the process. Whether it’s sausage making, curing whole muscles, or breaking down an animal, the participants have the opportunity to complete the process start-to-finish and ultimately take home their own product. The classes are held in our state certified meat processing facility at 931 E Main St.” (

I signed up for the morning class, from 10 – 1. By the time I arrived, the excitement I felt Friday afternoon had morphed into trepidation. There were not only knives lying on the long butcher block table, but saws. I started trembling, remembering 10th grade biology class, when we were expected to dissect a fetal pig.

Suffice to say that my dreams of becoming a veterinarian died that day. Would I really be able to do this? I wasn’t sure. I wanted to. I was interested. And committed. Yet I also felt terribly, fallibly human. And scared. So I jumped at the chance when the teacher, Charlie, asked if anyone wanted to partner with him. Charlie was my safety net in case I couldn’t do it, if my hands refused to cut into the animal or if I had to leave the room to vomit, both of which happened in that long ago biology class.

So. To begin. Charlie started things off by having us, the 8 men and 3 women who had signed up for the class, introduce ourselves and say what we were hoping to get from the class. A corporate chef and one of his employees wanted to bring the knowledge into their kitchen. Several people had received the class as a gift, for birthdays or anniversaries.

One woman was there because she loves Forequarter, and had made this class one of her New Year’s resolutions. The other woman was there because she processes deer with her family every year, and wanted to take that knowledge to a new level.

I explained that I was there because of my belief that if I can’t bear to break them down, to witness what it means to turn an animal into food, then I don’t deserve to eat animals. I felt ridiculous in a way. But it also felt really good. Authentic. Charlie responded to my concerns by explaining that we would be butchering Berkshire pigs, a smaller heirloom breed sourced from a local farm, where they’d had good lives.

Finally, there was a man who works in the industry and has grown to become passionately opposed to factory farming. In the last few years, he’s begun raising heirloom pigs. This was the next step  in his process of becoming.

After the introductions, we brought the first pig out from the cooler. dead pigAs you might imagine from this photo, it was shocking. Yet, unlike the traumatic 10th grade biology class, there was no smell of formaldehyde. There was a smell of blood, but it was faint, clean. There was no revulsion. I stared leaning toward sorrow. Then I noticed a different feeling. Gratitude. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet this challenge on this beautiful, visibly healthy animal. I focused while Charlie walked us through. We would be breaking the pig into primal cuts, starting with the head.

Before making the first cut, you move the head around to find the space between the head and the forequarter, which is what the pigs shoulders are called when the animal has been broken down into meat. Charlie made these first cuts, using a knife to slice through layers of skin, fat, and muscle. Thankfully, there was no blood. This reality was still only the Disney version, as these pigs had already been slaughtered, bled, and gutted. I suppose my next obligation will be to witness the slaughter. But this was plenty real, especially the part that required a saw. The saw was necessary to get through the bone. cutting in halfOnce we had detached the pig’s head, the next step was separating its (her?) midsection and forequarter. Unfortunately I did not get a shot of this part, which may have been the most interesting bit. What you see here is the final cut, through the spine. But first you put your hand inside the pig’s chest cavity to count the ribs. You then use a knife to cut, from the inside, between the 4th and 5th ribs.

I didn’t do it myself, because I was still trembling. But I watched, avidly, until I noticed that my nervousness had switched into fascination. I realized that I was going to be okay. I could do this. Because yes, this animal lived and died for human consumption. Which is an ethical minefield. But I was honoring this animal. I can do no more, at least not where I’m at right now in my life. And with that realization it became fun. It became food. mid section2

What you see here is the center cut, before and after being split open. Once it’s open, you take out the tenderloins, which lie on either side of the spine. You then cut the entire piece in half, which is what you see at the bottom of the photo. We first cut out the rib tips, that triangular piece along the top left.

pork bellyNext, you separate the ribs by slicing under them horizontally.  Here’s a shot of me, demonstrating. Because by this point I totally felt like a pro. Next, we took off the roast, which I think could become pork chops. But we left it whole. Starting at the top, you cut down until you meet bone, then, after scoring a line along the top of the ribs, you saw through the ribs. Then you cut down and remove the roast. Which leaves you with pork belly. At this point, I was so engaged at that I completely forgot to document the pork belly with a photo. But you can probably imagine what it looks like.  We then squared the pork belly off into slabs of bacon. Which we got to take home along with ribs, pork roast, and tenderloin.

At some point during the day, although I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped for lunch, which consisted of polish sausages,  rolls, sauerkraut, roasted fingerling potatoes, bean salad, pickled beans, and a salad of shaved carrot, celery, and pickled cauliflower. This is a poor photo. But I think it’s adequate to give you the idea.  Charlie also brought in pastries, which of course I tried but failed to resist. Almond croissant. So. Good. I heard the scone was equally great. ( Yeah. Madison’s definitely got something special going on, as evidenced by the Underground Food Collective’s butcher shop, which I stopped into after class, before heading home. I won’t go on about it because this post is already crazy long, and I haven’t even gotten to the bacon yet. But if you’re in Madison, you should go. In addition to the pork that I took from the class, I came home with house-made pickled cherries, three kinds of dried beans, which I will post about in the weeks ahead, sausage, and smoked bacon. Because, while bacon was among the cuts that I took from the class, I don’t have a smoker. So I’m curing it with salt, in my refrigerator.

At the very end of class, after we’d divvied up our portions of the meat and the rest had been put into the cooler, Charlie gave each of us a recipe for cured bacon, as well as instructions and ideas for what to do with the other cuts. I didn’t take notes. But, as I said at the start, I came away filled with inspiration. So, when I came home, I made up my own cure, which is a hybrid of the Underground Food Collective’s recipe, Charlie’s instructions/advice, and a recipe for beef bacon in Paul Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen, which I happen to have from the library. ( Okay. Here’s the recipe, with proportions based on a standard sized pork belly. Mine was only 3 pounds, so I adjusted accordingly, but I think this will be easier to follow.

Cured bacon
1 5 lb. piece of pork belly
3-1/2 oz. Kosher salt
1-1/4 oz. honey or maple syrup
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
freshly ground black pepper to taste — I used a lot

Wash and dry the pork belly. Combine the ingredients into a paste. Rub the paste into the pork belly. Transfer to a ziplock bag and seal. I had to use a paper towel to clear the zipper, so you may want think ahead and have one handy. I also double bagged, because the pork belly will exude water as it cures. I then put the whole thing on a platter.

bacon 2I’m sorry to say that I didn’t photograph the process, because I completely forgot. I was tired. But here are a couple of shots from this morning. In the first image, you can see the pig’s nipples along the top. The skin is on now because it’s really hard to take off. According to Charlie, it will come right off at the end of the process.

This second image is more recognizeable as food, closer to what we see in the store. bacon 3Which brings me to a full stop. It is remarkable to me that this bacon, which is now curing in my refrigerator, came from a pig that was killed this past Thursday. It’s sad that this should be so, that we, as a society, are so disconnected from our food that the reality is hard to believe. But I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the process. I believe this pig had a good life. I trust, because I have to, that it was killed humanely. And I know it is going to be delicious.

The curing process will take a few days. I’m supposed to turn the bacon every day, poking it after a few days to see if it’s gotten firm. Once it’s firm, I will remove it from the brine, rise, dry, and bake in the oven at a low temperature until the temperature reaches 140 and it smells done.

Typically, you would set the oven as low as it could go. But I didn’t have any #1 curing salt. Charlie said it would be fine but to make sure it’s cooked. So I’ll most likely set the oven at 225. And cross my fingers.

Cranberry bean gratin with potato leek soup and arugula salad with fennel and parmesan

Tonight I had a friend over for dinner. On a Wednesday. cranberry bean gratinWhich is super fun and exciting. Because, while I love to entertain, I don’t do it that often these days, particularly on weeknights. But unlike my extravagant mole for one, this dinner only took about an hour of active time in the kitchen. Indeed, I worked all day, at the office, while the cranberry beans were in the slow cooker. So all I had to do when I got home was throw the gratin together, cook soup, and chop fennel for the salad.

For the beans, I decided to experiment and use the cranberry beans from Rancho Gordo. I figured they would stand out in the gratin. Which they did. But honestly? They were no better than the Goya beans I buy from the market down the street for $2, as opposed to $5.99 plus shipping for fancy imported beans. From here on out, there are definitely some beans that are worth the extra money, like Vallarta, Rio Zape, and probably others that I haven’t tried yet. Not cranberry beans, though.

Now, recipes! The gratin is based on an Alice Waters’ recipe that I found in Elizabeth Berry’s Great Bean Book. ( The original recipe is titled “Fresh Shell Bean Gratin.” Since it’s February in Chicago, fresh shell beans are not an option. But I figured dried beans would be adequate, if not quite as delicious. I also changed the original by subbing kale, which I had leftover in the fridge, for swiss chard. Otherwise my version is pretty true to the original recipe.

3 c. cooked cranberry beans, with about 1 c. cooking liquid
6 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 Vidalia or other sweet onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, slivered
1/2 t. dried sage
1 c. chopped, cooked kale or other green
2 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 c. toasted bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350. Heat 2 T. oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onions, garlic, and sage, season with salt, and cook, over low heat, for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add the kale and tomatoes. Cook for another minute or two. Add the beans, stir to combine, and transfer to a gratin dish. Add bean cooking liquid to almost cover. Top with the bread crumbs, drizzle olive oil over the top, and cook for about 45 minutes.

1 leek, white and pale green part only, rinsed, halved, and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
4 medium baking potatoes
1/2 t. thyme
2 T. olive oil
3 c. chicken broth
3 c. water
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Saute the leek and the onion for about 10 minutes, until soft. Add the potato and thyme. Cook for another 4 minutes or so. Add the chicken broth and water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 30 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender.

1/2 fennel bulb, cored, halved, and thinly sliced
3 cups baby arugula
parmesan cheese
1/4 lemon
1 T. walnut oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Divide the arugula between 2 bowls. Top with the fennel, a pinch of salt, walnut oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Using a vegetable peeler, shave a few curls of parmesan cheese over the top of each bowl.


Ayocote Negro (Black Runner) Beans in Rick Bayless’s Brick-Red Mole

Mmmmm. Mole sauce. Good. Before moving to Chicago, I don’t believe I’d ever heard of, much less tasted, mole sauce. And when I tasted mole, good mole, I didn’t imagine being able to make it. Such a deep, complex flavor seemed impossible to recreate at home. Because I knew it wasn’t really just chocolate. Then I found Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. (

I’m not sure whether I would love this cookbook quite as much if I didn’t livechilies 3 in Chicago, where all of the ingredients, including these beautiful ancho and guajillo chilies, are available down the street, at least in all the neighborhoods I’ve lived in. The recipes are time-consuming and call for about a million ingredients. But man–I’ve never been disappointed by the results, including what I made today.

This time-consuming dish is traditionally reserved for special occasions. In the past, back when I was partnered up, I made mole for a few dinner parties and once as holiday gifts. But today? There’s no special occasion. Not really. It’s just me, at home, cooking for myself. Yet I had the day off, to celebrate presidents. And I feel celebratory. Filled with gratitude. Because here I am, working every day to build a meaningful life on my own, in a way that brings me joy. Which is really cool. Plus I love all-day cooking projects. Lots of dancing in kitchen. So what the hell. I decided to make my own special occasion by making mole sauce, celebrating myself, in my new life, with some of my fancy heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. (

black runner beans2Rick Bayless’s original recipe for this particular mole sauce calls for scarlet runner beans, which I didn’t have. But I had two bags of Ayocote Negro, or black runner beans, which, according to Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando, is supposed to be “the perfect salad bean.” This is because they’re quite starchy, I think. But it also makes sense because they’re absolutely gorgeous. So I’ll definitely save the other bag for a salad some warmish day. However, since Steve Sando tells me that all of the different varieties of runner beans can be used interchangeably, it worked out perfectly to use one bag for this dish.

Tonight, I served the mole over rice with cauliflower steaks and sauteed kale.  mole(Here’s a bad photo, which perfectly demonstrates why one should not include photos of food unless they’re good. But I digress.) Bayless suggests “a good cheese, hot tortillas and a salad.” He also says that the beans in mole make a good taco filling if you simmer the sauce longer, until it is thick. I think next time I’ll take this advice, as honestly, the kale and cauliflower weren’t perfect matches. You could also skip the beans entirely and use the mole as a sauce for enchiladas, tamales, grilled chicken, braised pork loin, etc. But whatever variation you choose, if any, read the recipe through a couple of times first. It’s not difficult. And it’s really very satisfying. But there are several steps. Including the sneaky non-step step of stemming and seed the chilies beforehand, which is only noted in the ingredient list yet takes some amount of time. So you’ll need to plan accordingly.

12 ounces (about 2 cups) scarlet or black runner beans
2-1/2 t. salt
6 medium dried ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
3 medium dried guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded
1 med-small round or 3 small plum tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 T. sesame seeds
1/2 t. cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela (I didn’t bother)
1 generous t. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
Scant 1/2 t. black pepper, preferably freshly ground
3 T. (about 3/4 oz.) coarsely chopped Mexican chocolate
3 to 3-1/2 c. chicken broth
1-1/2 T. olive oil or lard
1 T. honey (original recipe calls for 2-1/2 t. sugar)

1. Rinse the beans, transfer into a large pot or slow cooker. Add 1-1/2 qt. cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer gently for 2-3 hours. Alternatively, cook in the slow cooker on high for about 5 hours or until tender. Check the water level and add more water as necessary to keep the liquid a generous 1/2 inch above the beans. Season with about 1 t. salt.

2. Make the mole while the beans are cooking. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium heat. Toast the chilies a few at a time by laying them flat and pressing down with a metal spatula for a few seconds, until there is a crackle or perhaps a thin wisp of smoke. Turn and toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chilies to a medium bowl, cover with hot water, and allow the chilies to rehydrate for about a half hour. Drain and discard the water.

3. While the chilies are soaking, toast the sesame seeds for about two minutes, being careful not to burn. Transfer the seeds to a plate to cool. Toast the garlic and tomato in the skillet or griddle, turning, for 10-15 minutes, until soft and blackened in spots. Cool slightly, peel off the skins, and transfer to a blender (ideal) or food processor (adequate but won’t grind up the sesame very well). Add the sesame seeds, chilies, cinnamon, oregano, pepper, chocolate, and 1-1/2 cups of broth. Process  until smooth. The original recipe says to strain the sauce in a medium-mesh strainer. I didn’t strain the sauce today, because I don’t have a medium-mesh strainer and I don’t really care about perfectly smooth sauce. But you may. Mine definitely had texture, mostly sesame seeds.

4. Heat the oil or lard in a heavy, medium-sized saucepan over medium-high. Once the oil is hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle, add the puree all at once and stir for 3-4 minutes, until it’s thickened a bit. Add the rest of the broth, stir, partially cover, and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1-1/2 teaspoons, and honey or sugar.

5. Stir the drained beans into the mole. Simmer for about 20 minutes, for the beans to absorb the flavors, adding more broth if necessary.  Taste for salt and serve.

Vallarta bean puree with short ribs and bitter greens

vallarta beans with short ribs and greens3I’m finally realizing that I don’t need a light box to take photos. Just a bit more imagination. In the meantime, thank goodness for friends, who come to dinner with a fresh perspective. Here is my friend’s shot of last night’s dinner: short ribs and turnip greens over a Vallarta bean puree. OMG. So good. So, so good.

Vallarta beans are alleged to be the favorite of celebrity chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry. ( But in The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, Steve Sando is less than enthusiastic, confessing, “When I first cooked it, I was underwhelmed and in fact didn’t really like the super-thick, almost peanut butter texture of the bean.” However, he did fall in love with the beans when their richness was cut by bitter greens.

I, not being a fool (at least when it comes to food), took this advice to heart. But I wasn’t quite sure what else to serve. Until inspiration struck in the form of my visiting friend’s dietary requirements, which, atypically, include lots and lots of red meat. To make more blood. Weird, right? But fascinating. I sometimes forget that all of our bodies have different needs, which can be diametrically opposed. Fun challenge to cook with another person’s body type in mind!

My other challenge in coming up with a menu was timing, as life outside of dreamland has been busier than usual. What could I make in the slow cooker that would showcase this rich, super-thick bean? I considered pot roast, but that didn’t seem right. Meatloaf, meatballs, beef stew, braciole. No, no, no, no. None of these sounded like a good foil or showcase for extra-special Vallarta bean. Then I remembered short ribs.

Several years ago, at the tail end of my dinner party hey day, short ribs were a bit of a fad. I made them just once. They were delicious but super fatty and not a lot of bang for the buck. These days I’m less flush with cash and also, because of my much healthier diet, do not easily digest fatty meats. But I kept coming back to the idea. Short ribs sounded perfect. And I couldn’t think of any other make-ahead, red meat option that sounded good. So I decided to go for it. And I’m so glad I did.

Because I’m a slow cooker junkie, I have two, one fancy new model, and another, straight from the 70s in its avocado green and curly brown font, that I picked up at a garage sale. The older version is small and round, perfect for cooking beans. But I typically use my newer model because the older one does not have a timer. Yesterday, however, I got to use both, the older one for the beans, and the newer version for the meat. You cannot imagine how happy this made me all day, to know that not just one, but two separate dishes were simmering away, at home, while I was out in the world.

Vallarta BeansVallarta beans

Before being introduced to Rancho Gordo, I had my own style of bean cookery, which is incredibly basic: beans, water, and kombu in a slow cooker, seasoned with salt at the end. I like adding aromatics as per the Rancho Gordo way. But after being warned about the richness of Vallarta beans, I decided to go with my own approach, to meet the bean on its own, without any distraction.

I put the unsoaked beans (2 cups) into the slow cooker, covered with 2″ of cold water, added a thumb-sized piece of kombu, and cooked, covered, on low for about 9 hours. When I got home the beans were perfectly tender and just covered by a rich, thick broth. I added salt and let them cool in the salted broth, to infuse beans with salt. The presalted taste didn’t wow me, but, after tasting the seasoned bean I’m definitely in Thomas Keller’s camp. Vallarta beans are delicious. Rich and creamy, similar to baby lima beans but without being overly sweet. To puree, just pluck out the kombu and use an immersion blender to combine the beans with their pot liquor. The result is a perfect companion to the heady short ribs. But I also think it would be wonderful as a bed for roasted Brussels sprouts, which I will likely try tomorrow. And, honestly? The puree on its own was so good that I literally (if carefully) licked the immersion blender. Which is embarrassing. But true.

 Short Ribs

For the short ribs, I adapted a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which I found here ( My version is pretty similar. But I used fewer ribs, because there were just going to be two of us, and I did not bother with separating meat from bones. I also used just one onion and subbed arrowroot powder for the original recipe’s flour, to make the recipe gluten free. Oh, and, as always, I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil. Just ’cause.

Review? I was happy with the end result except it was really fatty. I skimmed a lot of fat off the top before serving. But, in future, I will try to make the dish one day ahead in order to chill overnight. Refrigerated fat is much easier to remove. Okay. Now for the recipe.

3 lbs. beef short ribs
salt & pepper
1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped medium
1 carrot, peeled and chopped medium
1 celery rib, chopped medium
1 T. tomato paste
1 t. dried thyme
3 T. arrowroot powder
2 c. dry red wine
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 c. low sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves

1. Wash and dry the short ribs. Season generously with salt and pepper, rubbing the seasoning into all sides. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown the ribs on all sides, about 1 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker.

2. Add onions, carrot, celery, tomato paste, and thyme to the skillet. Saute over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the onions are softened and lightly browned. Stir in the arrowroot powder and cook for another minute. Then slowly whisk (or stir) in the red wine and vinegar. Simmer for another 5 minutes or so and transfer to the slow cooker.

3. Stir the broth and bay leaves into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 9-11 hours, until the beef is tender. Mine was perfect at 10 hours.

4. Transfer short ribs to a serving platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let the braising liquid settle for 5 minutes, then remove fat from the surface using a large spoon. Serve on top of the bean puree or mashed potatoes or riced cauliflower. If you want a smooth sauce, strain the liquid, discarding the solids, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Or, for a more rustic dish, top the finished plate with a spoonful of solids, as I did.

Greensturnip greens sauteed with garlic

For the greens, you want something bitter to cut the richness of the Vallarta beans, especially if you’re adding extra richness of meat. I decided to go with turnip greens for three reasons. First, they were the best looking option at the market. Second, they were the most affordable option at the market. Third, I love them. I’m a big fan of slow cooked Southern-style greens. But for this dish I went a different route, following a recipe I read the other day in the gorgeous, gorgeous cookbook, Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza. ( I’ve adapted the original only by the type of greens (she calls for wild greens and recommends subbing Swiss chard, kale, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, dandelion, spinach, arugula, and/or escarole) and reducing the oil from 1/4 cup to 3 T.

Whatever greens  you choose, wash, trim, and boil in well-salted water for about 10 minutes. Drain, cool, and chop. Heat about 4 T. olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a peeled clove of garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, being careful not to let the garlic get too brown. Then add the greens and cook for another 10 minutes. Arrange the greens on top of the bean puree, around the ribs or roasted vegetables or, if you’re a purist, just around. Enjoy!

slow cooker Sloppy Joes, traditional and an experiment with Brown Tepary beans

Sloppy Joes aren’t supposed to be tricky, I don’t think. Surely a large part of the appeal is that they’re easy? Also, of course, once you get away from the revolting Manwich-style Sloppy Joe of my childhood, they’re pretty damn good.

I actually only recently discovered that Sloppy Joes were good, when I first tried the recipe in Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann’s Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook. ( No goopy manwich, this. Just completely addictive deliciousness. So, when I came up with the idea of a bean cookbook, I wanted to create a version using beans. And without refined sugar.

The sugar issue wasn’t a big deal. I just subbed honey in for the brown sugar called for by the original recipe, which is included at the end of this post in case you’re curious. But the beans are a completely different story. This is my third attempt and, while they’re alright, I’m still not there.

One thing that did work this time is the bean. Which is huge progress. I’ll outline the history so you’ll understand.

For my first try, I used navy beans. I thought they would work well because of the size, which was large enough to be meaty but small enough to keep the sandwich feeling. Wrong. The flavor was good by the beans themselves were overwhelmingly dense and heavy. It also took forever to cook. Literally 24 hours.

For the second try, I used lentils. Again, the flavor was fine. And the lentils were fully cooked in a normal time (10 hours on low). The problem was the texture, which was unpleasantly sharp, like eating little shards of cooked clay. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. But not as much as you might think.

This time, with the Brown Tepary bean, I was confident that I’d finally found the perfect bean. Brown Tepary beansAs described by Steve Sando in The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, Brown Teparies, are small, meaty beans that “are higher in protein and fiber than other beans,” drought-resistant and will grow almost anywhere. Good for the environment? Small? Meaty? Plus extra nutritional superpowers? Perfect!

Not so fast, Goldilocks. The size and texture of the Brown Tepary were indeed perfect. But the beans took far too long to cook and the final result had too liquid. Which means I’m not done yet. That said, this version is edible. But there’s no photo. I made a light box, I did! It just doesn’t work. Yet. So I’ll try again. Later.

For now, here’s the recipe, which is true to what I did today. It would be vegan  except the Worcestershire sauce is made with anchovies. If you’re feeling courageous and decide to try for yourself, I recommend using only 2 cups of water and adding the tomato sauce at the beginning. That’s my plan for next time.

2 c. Brown Tepary beans, brined overnight
2 ribs celery, diced
1 sm. red bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 tsp. dried mustard
1-3/4 tsp. paprika
1-3/4 tsp. chili powder
1 dried red chili, crumbled
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 Tb. Worcestershire sauce
3 Tb. olive oil
3 Tb. honey
1 28-oz. can tomato puree
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar

1. Add everything except the tomato puree and apple cider vinegar to the insert of your slow cooker. Add water to cover, put the top on the pot, and cook on high for 4 hours.

2. Add the tomato puree and vinegar. Stir and continue cooking for another 2 hours or until the beans are tender and the liquid has reduced (this took another several hours).

Serve on buns or as a topping for baked potatoes. If, like me, you have a lot of leftovers, they freeze really well. Dinner and lunches for later! Now, if you’re curious, here’s the recipe that made me realize why people eat Sloppy Joes.

Original recipe from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium-size onion, finely chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 large rib celery, finely chopped1 clove garlic, ninced
One 6-oz can tomato paste
2 Tb. apple cider vinegar, or more as needed
2 Tb. brown sugar (I use honey)
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder, or to taste
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. Worscestershire sauce
Dash of hot sauce, such as Tobasco
Dash of cayenne pepper

Hamburger buns or other soft sandwich rolls (or baked potatoes) for serving

1. Cook the beef and vegetables in a large skillet over medium high-heat, stirring, until the meat is cooked through. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and cook on low for 6 or 7 hours. (I usually cook for 8 hours. It’s fine.)

2. Taste and add more vinegar or sugar, if desired. Serve the meat mixture spooned into the buns.

slow cooker vegetarian chili, adapted from “The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker,” by Lynn Alley

Growing up, I didn’t like chili. My father made a version with ground beef and chunks of tomato, which, as a child, I abhored. (Now I like it just fine, Dad!) Then, later, when I was a young adult, my brother introduced me to his favorite chili, a more sophisticated version that included Italian sausage and chunks of beef with a smoothly textured, complexly flavored sauce. It was good. Yet I still didn’t quite get what all the chili fuss was about. Until I moved to Chicago. And learned about winter.

chiliSince moving to Chicago I’ve fallen in love with several chili recipes, most but not all vegetarian. This recipe, which Lynn Alley titled “My Favorite Chili,” is my current favorite. At first it seems a bit intimidating, because it calls for whole spices. But don’t be scared off. It’s easy enough to grind your own spices. I just let my coffee grinder do double duty with a thorough wash before and after. Here’s my version of Lynn Alley’s favorite chili.

2 cups dried beans (I usually make this with cranberry or pinto beans, but you could probably use any kind. This time I used Lila, from It turned out fine but I prefer cranberry beans.)
6 cups water
6 allspice berries
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 t. dried Mexican oregano
1/2 t. cumin seeds
1/4 t. aniseed
1/2 T. coriander seeds
2-5 dried chilies
1 thumb-sized piece kombu
1/2 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 – 2 T. chili powder
1/2 c. diced red bell pepper
1/2 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels
pepper jack cheese, cilantro, and Greek yogurt, for garnishes

1. Wash the beans and put them in the insert of your slow cooker with the water. Grind the spices and add to the beans along with the kombu and the dried chilies, either whole or, if you want some extra heat, crumbled. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, or until the beans are tender. (If you are going to be away all day, add the ingredients listed in step 2 and cook for 8-10 hours. It will be fine.)

2. Add the diced onion, garlic, tomatoes, cocoa powder, and chili powder. Continue cooking for another 2 hours.

3. About 1/2 hour before you’re ready to serve, add the red pepper and corn kernels .

This chili tastes best if you make it a day ahead. It also freezes well. Indeed, this makes an enormous amount of chili, so I generally freeze the majority for later use. Because I feel somehow safer knowing I have chili in the freezer. But it’s perfectly delicious the same day, especially when you come home to it after a long day at work. Speaking of which, if I know I’m going to be gone all day (which I usually am), I brine the beans overnight (, and then add all of the ingredients except the red bell pepper and corn at start. Then I cook on low for 10 hours. Brining prevents the beans from toughening, which can happen if you add tomatoes or other acids early in the cooking process.