As New Year’s Day approaches we return as always to the form of a New Year’s brunch that seems to cross many cultures: some combination of beans and greens. The beans could be anything from lentils or garbanzos to any of the longer cooking dried beans like black-eyed peas, red, white, or black beans. The greens range from tough old collards, through bitter mustard and kale, to luscious spinach. In every case, the combination represents the pairing of coins and paper money, pennies and greenbacks, and the meal is meant assure much of the same in the coming year.
This year we are using small red beans – which are supposed to be very healthful, and a mixture of kale and spinach.
Everyone has their own favorite recipes, so we only mention a few habits we have with beans.
First, as a general principal, it always seems that beans just get better and better as you cook them; this is not a matter of getting them well done, but rather a matter of maturing flavors. Our goal, then, is not to speed up the cooking, but to slow it down.
For that reason, we do several things. First, we pre-soak the beans for a couple of hours by pouring boiling water over them, bringing to a simmer, and then leaving them covered off the heat. This has two benefits. First, it draws off the oxalic acid that many beans are rich in, aiding digestibility. Second, it seems to be the gentlest method of expanding the beans. That leaves them better able to hold up during the long cooking to follow.
After draining the beans, you can use any flavoring you want for the cooking. In this case, we covered the bottom of a heavy copper pot with slices of smoked pork jowl (a southern US tradition). For some heat and leaner smokiness, we threw in two dried chipotle peppers (often we skip the fat meat and just use these peppers with some olive oil). Then the odd end of a piece of cappicola that was getting a little too dry to slice. If we have a pigs foot, that is a very good addition, since it gives a creamy richness to the liquid as the gelatin cooks out. Later two leftover links of Italian sausage will also go in. Top all this with a variety of veggies – onion, pepper, a bit of parsnip, carrot, and celery. A bay leave, a sprig of fresh rosemary and thyme, a clove or two, and then a nice pour of olive oil, after which the beans, drained, go on top. The pot goes on a hot burner to get the pork jowl sizzling, after which we fill up the pot with hot water, and set on to simmer as long as possible, at as low a temperature as possible.
Two other variations from the usual advice: salt and vinegar slow down cooking and somewhat toughen the beans, so usually you are told to add them at the very end. Instead, we like to add a teaspoon or two of salt up front, together with a tablespoon of homemade red wine vinegar (quite mild). This keeps the beans firm longer and allows them to cook long and slowly. — Our pennies are hard earned, but worth it!