Most of my friends would say I’m a pretty good cook, but I don’t think that begins to describe it. Andy is much more what I’d call a good cook as in the bold, adventurous, “cooking as contact sport” Gordon Ramsay kind of cook. Me? I’m all about the gadgets and the processes. I can improvise, but I want the scientific tests to back me up before I chose a methodology or alter the formula. Yes Gentle Readers, you’ve seen The Mother of All Pressure Canners and shared my frustration with what seem to be lacksadaisical instructions from cookbooks about using it. Somehow I managed to muddle through and make some pretty outstanding tomato marmalade. So good that I’m thinking of following my friend Susi’s suggestion and adding “Win a Blue Ribbon at the Sonoma County Fair” to my Bucket List. I think I have a contenda.
But what I want to talk about today are slow cookers. And yes, once again, I had to buy the best one I could afford. Problem is, finding a cookbook that helps me maximize what I think must be its potential. For the next few weeks, my target are beans. Because a) beans, beans, they’re good for your heart and b) because, at 39¢ to $1.79 per pound, you can make a lot of mistakes with beans before you really start feeling bad about wasting food dollars.
I’ve made beans before in this slow cooker. And Lord knows, I’ve got the Western Hemisphere’s most extensive collection of slow cooker cookbooks. The problem is, if I admit it, I’ve never managed to make beans that taste better than some of the stuff you get in cans. Or, as in the case of the cannellini beans I just made last week, they taste as good, but they are kind of mushy and not all perfect like the canned stuff. But I’m not giving up. So today, I tackled pinto beans or frijoles — those classics of the American Southwest.
Okay, I don’t want to be a finger-pointer here. As the Irish say, “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” But some of the fault has to be apportioned to the divided food writer community. No one seems to have a clear consensus on how to cook beans. Here’s what I found when scanning through all my cookbooks.
There’s the school that says, “Hey, it’s a slow cooker, just dump everything in and Hey Presto!”. I’m rejecting that advice. I’m a
victim product of a mother who hated cooking and embraced the old Peg Bracken I Hate to Cook Books. Until my brother and I took the reins and started cooking, our mealtimes were an endless round of a mass of stuff covered with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, topped with those orangey crunchy things and lots of hamburger helper. Shudder. Not going back there again. I’ve purged out the cookbooks that share that philosophy. (I say, if you are going to cook, really cook. Otherwise make a salad.)
Then there are the conflicting controversies:
1) Beans should only be cooked on the Low setting.
2) NO! Beans should only be cooked on the High setting.
3) Spice it up before you turn on the crock.
4) Nope, all spices should only go in just before serving.
5) Nothing salty or you’ll toughen the skins.
6) What?! Gotta add stock or it will be bland. Who cares if stock has sodium in it?
7) Don’t need to soak the beans for slow cooking.
8 ) Fool! You ALWAYS need to soak the beans.
Then there are the alleged secret ingredients. A bit of Kombu seaweed. Or something called Epazote or Mexican Tea. I almost embarked on a safari to the Mexican side of Sonoma in search of the elusive herb until I read that, in large quantities, it’s toxic. I quickly reassessed how committed I was to tasty beans
Actually I found what I’m hoping will be my own secret ingredient. Let’s not even get into the controversy about what liquid to cook the beans in. But I did find one cookbook that recommended at least part of the liquid should be beer. Yes, JACKPOT!
My friend Keith has backed an outrageous Scottish Microbrewery, BrewDog. Needless to say, during Keith’s long and illustrious career in what he, with British quaintness, calls “The Drinks Industry”, we’ve always been well stocked with his product. So I could put my hand on just the thing, BrewDog’s Paradox MacCallan.
So I found the recipe that sounded the best because it included steps like blackening Serrano chiles, onions and garlic, then cooking the beans in stock and beer liberally sprinkled with cumin and coriander. (For reference, it was from The Gourmet Slow Cooker by Lynn Alley. Ten Speed Press.)
Of course, into it I added a full bottle of Paradox MacCallan. See, I’m betting the Scottish and the Mexicans have a lot in common. In fact, I’m sure we could find some sort of historical connection — maybe having to do with the Spanish Armada — that proves Scottish Stout is THE KEY INGREDIENT to a good bowl of frijoles.
I know the proof will be in the eating, but barely an hour in the aromas wafting through the kitchen made me think I was really on to something here. Scottish and Mexican. Hmmm. Okay, hear me out. Think of a classic old Western. The wagon trains are rolling through the Southwest. Many of them are driven by the Irish and Scottish. Hey, I have history to back me up here. Where do you think the Teamsters came from? So they get ambushed by Mexican bandits who relieve them of a load of beer destined for the thirsty miners in the gold fields. Mexicans, being a thrifty and industrious people, and preferring their Tequila as a drink, figure out something else to do with the casks of beer. Frijoles. Yes!
Okay, if you aren’t buying this, I do have proof that Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show to Scotland frequently. So there.
Anyway, the only test that matters: the taste. The taste. THE TASTE!
I’ve been my own worst critic on beans. (‘Cause I’ve always shifted the blame to the cookbook!) But these beans are fabulous. Better than canned. Better than a restaurant. Unbelievable.
What makes it so? A wonderful smokiness. Remember those chiles, garlic and onions the recipe had me broil and char? Part of it. Then I added two small strips of bacon. Because, well you can’t help but improve anything with bacon. But the largest part of the equation and what I think really underscored everything and brought the tastes together: the dark and slightly peaty flavor of the beer. And that’s not going to be just any beer, Folks, it’s got to be beer aged in whisky casks. It’s got to be BrewDog Paradox. Or back to blaming the cookbook. So thank you, BrewDog. I’m renaming you CervezaPerro.
Ai Yi Yi Yi and Scots Wha Hae. You’ve just proven my point about that Scottish/Mexican connection.