Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Appalachian Beans in my Dreams

This week we drove 1100 miles to South Carolina and back for a 3-hour video shoot. Our route took us the length of West Virginia, over the mountains of southwest Virgina, and across North Carolina. This is the heart of Appalachia, one of the most distinctive cultural areas in America. 
I've loved Appalachia ever since I read Catherine Marshall's "Christy" as a kid and started picking bluegrass classics on the guitar during the folk music craze of the sixties.  I've camped nearly the length of the mountain chain from Maine to Georgia and hiked to the top of Mt. Marcy, Mt. Washington, Mt. Rogers, Mt. Mitchell and Clingman's Dome. I feel as at home in these woods as I do in my own back yard. 

On any road trip we try to balance the desire to explore and appreciate the countryside with the need to get to our destination. We get off the interstate when we can and drive the back roads through small towns looking for places where the locals eat, always asking our hometown server what the specialties are. This time we did that, but for mile after mile, all we found were strip malls and fast food chains, an endless stream of Shoney's, Bojangles, KFC/Taco Bell, CiCi's, Buffalo's, and McWendy King. We'd get to the end of the strip, drive a couple of miles through rolling hills and the sequence would begin again, usually anchored by a Walmart. Try as we might we found not one locally owned restaurant. Our last day, wending our way through southern West Virgina looking for a homemade breakfast we finally gave up and pulled into the Cracker Barrel.
What's happening to Appalachia? What's happening to America? Everyone complains that Walmart puts local shops out of business, but is anyone concerned that chain restaurants are killing the local cuisine? We ended up eating at Buffalo's, Fatz and the Cracker Barrel, and all were packed with locals, groups of friends celebrating the end of the work week, young couples enjoying Saturday night, families sharing brunch after church. But they were all eating food chosen for them by corporate interests located far from their homeland with little awareness of local specialties.

When we got home I looked up beans in Appalachia and discovered that in West Virginia they make something called soup beans, which are plain pinto beans cooked with fatback or other porky pieces, served with cornbread. Fatback is not going to happen in my vegetarian kitchen, but I managed to make some beans that filled the void we felt after a thousand miles of laminated menus.

Mushroom Beans with Ramps
1 cup pinto beans, soaked overnight, drained
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
mushroom broth
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup dried mushrooms
5-6 ramps
chopped red onion

Cover the drained beans with mushroom broth to cover; add the olive oil, the whole onion and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook until the beans are not quite tender.

Meanwhile, cover the dried mushrooms with boiling water and let stand until the mushrooms are softened. Drain the mushrooms, reserving liquid. Sometimes dried mushrooms are a little gritty, so wash well until running water, then pat dry with paper towels and chop fine. Add to the beans. Strain the soaking liquid (I use a paper coffee filter) and add to the beans.

When the beans are about tender, add a splash of cider vinegar and liquid smoke to taste. Correct seasoning.

Wash the ramps well. Trim the roots, then thinly slice the bulbs and stems. Stack the leaves and slice fine. Saute the bulbs and stems in a little butter. When they're transparent, add the leaves and stir until wilted. Add the ramps to the beans when you're ready to serve.

The traditional accompaniment to West Virginia Soup Beans is an old-fashioned cabbage relish called chow-chow, a particular favorite of my mother. I couldn't find any locally (why didn't I buy some when I was in WV?!?) so we're using a corn salsa from Trader Joe's and some fresh chopped red onion. The added flavors give the beans a nice kick.

We ate these beans with homemade cornbread and pretended we were sitting at a little Mom 'n' Pop filled with locals and bluegrass and tables covered in oilcloth, with a view of the New River. We'd like to believe that place is out there; we just couldn't find it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cannellini on the Set

I've been making my living in video production for nearly 30 years. Most of the time I work on small projects with a crew of one to five. We usually only shoot for a few days in a couple of locations, then edit for a week or so, which means that projects come and go pretty quickly.

Once, during the late 90s I was part of a large crew shooting the live-action sequences for two video games, Black Dahlia and Jet Fighter: Full Burn. My role was organizational rather than creative, but it was interesting to work on one project for months on end in the same location with a big cast and crew. Even more interesting was that since these were video games and the locations and backgrounds were created by the animators, all of the people scenes were shot in front of a plain colored background and then composited into the scenes by a process called chroma key.

One thing about the movie business is that you eat well. Too well sometimes. There's food everywhere all the time and much of it not very healthy. Luckily on this job we had a terrific caterer who prepared a hearty hot lunch every day for anywhere from 20 to 80 people, depending on how many actors and extras were on set on the day. I was the only vegetarian yet Cindy always had several dishes that I could eat and I never went hungry.

The first few months of this marathon were in the darkest, coldest winter and nearly every day there was hot soup on the lunch buffet to start the meal. Surprisingly, many of these soups were vegetarian and the one that most knocked my socks off was Tuscan White Bean and Escarole. I begged for the recipe but Cindy just smiled and changed the subject. That sent me on a mission to replicate the soup, and after many tries I finally succeeded. It's one of our family's favorites and perfect for chilly nights. It's probably worth doubling the recipe to have some in the freezer for when you come home cold and tired to your own hungry cast and crew.

PS: If you ever play the game Black Dahlia and get to the very end, I am Severed Head #2. It's my only on-screen credit ever, and I'm pretty proud of it. :) 

Tuscan White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 cup cannellini or other white beans, soaked overnight
1 small onion
1 bay leaf

Cook the soaked beans with the onion and bay leaf in water to cover until barely tender. Drain.

1 stalk of celery
1 carrot
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary

Mince together until very fine, then saute in a little olive oil until golden and aromatic. Add the drained beans and 1 quart of vegetable broth. Simmer for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.

Chop one small head of escarole and swirl in fresh water until clean. Drain and add to soup. Simmer another 15 minutes or so, then taste and correct seasoning. I add a little cayenne for punch, a splash of cider vinegar for sparkle and a lot of freshly ground black pepper for bass notes.

For some reason, every time I make this soup the flavor is a little thin at first, maybe because the water in the escarole dilutes the broth. I have a couple of secret fixes for that. Either one of these will pump up the flavor. Add just a little at a time; too much and your soup ends up too salty.

I usually make this in the fall, but we've had such unseasonably cold weather here lately that when I saw the escarole in the market I snatched it up and put the beans on to soak. We've got a fire in the fireplace, biscuits in the oven and this soup simmering on the stove. What a great way to warm up a cool April Monday!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monday Beads

I've always been interested in how quickly knowledge disappears, how soon we forget what really happened and how stories repeated become remembered truth. This is particularly common in families, I think, where everyone remembers the time Jimmy wanted to fly and jumped off the garage roof, or the time Cathy took her dress off during Christmas dinner. Well, everyone thinks they remember, but often the memory has been implanted by hearing the story over and over again until it becomes a visual recollection.
I don't remember much from my childhood. I look at the photographs and see my sister Nancy and me dressed in shorts sets on our annual Highlights-of-the-East summer car trips to Niagara Falls, Williamsburg, the Jersey shore, Washington, DC, the Skyline Drive or Cypress Gardens. I don't really remember those trips, though I do have a vague memory of throwing up on my sister's needle work somewhere in the mountains.
There are other "memories" I have that aren't visual but are still firmly embedded in my brain. I remember our mother telling me that Nancy got her head stuck between the spindles in the second floor railing and they had to call the fire department to get her out. To be clear, I don't recall the event but I recall the telling of it. My sister doesn't remember it. So did it happen or not?

Mom also told me that Nancy once stuck a bean up her nose. I have a clear picture in my mind of Nancy crying with a green bean up her nose, although sometimes it's a lima. I wasn't there and I guess I never asked Mom what kind of bean it was so the image, though perfectly clear, alters slightly depending on the day.

As it happens, Nancy is visiting us in Pittsburgh this week and I was excited that she'd be here for Monday Beans and I thought maybe she'd reprise the bean-up-the-nose trick.

But when I mentioned this to her she said, "Bead."



"What kind of bead?"

"I think it was a wooden bead, the kind you string. I don't really remember."

What?! She doesn't remember either? Did it even happen? I'm shattered. I have this clear picture of Nancy with a bean up her nose and I was going to cleverly tie that into Monday Beans and now I learn it's a bead and we don't even know for sure what kind of bead. The image in my mind is wrong and it makes me wonder what other memories and stories are suspect. With no actual memories of my own, I now have a childhood that's a vast empty tundra. And beanless.

Pigeon Peas and Rice

2 cups pigeon peas, soaked overnight
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf

Saute the chopped onion in a little olive oil until transparent. Add the pigeon peas and bay leaf and water to cover by an inch or two. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and cook until the pigeon peas are just tender.

1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 cup sofrito (I used frozen, feel free to make your own)
1-1/2 cups rice
3 cups vegetable broth
liquid smoke
balsamic vinegar
Vegetarian worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper

Saute onion, garlic and pepper in a little olive oil until transparent. Stir in the spices and saute a few more minutes. Add sofrito and cook a few more minutes. Add the rice, stir until coated, then add the broth, bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer until rice is almost cooked. Add the drained pigeon peas, stir to combine. Add a little liquid smoke, some worcestershire and balsamic vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with chopped cilantro.

These were ok, not great. And Nancy wouldn't put any up her nose.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Too Much Dal

I'm deep into spring cleaning. Serious spring cleaning, where you not only throw open the windows and scrub and mop and clean windows, but where you dig deep in the back of closets, open the boxes piled in the attic and basement and sort through the junk drawers and catchall bins. And much to Jack's consternation, the agenda includes adding a fresh coat of paint on ceilings, walls and woodwork as we move from room to room. You'd think I'd've done this before hosting my family last summer for our son and daughter-in-law's wedding but better late than never.

I haven't tackled the basement pantry shelves yet. That's Jack's domain because he's the one who gets sent down for a box of pasta or a can of tomatoes or a steamer pot, so he organizes it his own way. This morning, though, as I was passing through, I noticed a large Tupperware tub of ingredients for Indian food. The colors caught my eye and I brought the container up to the kitchen to inventory. In addition to curry powder, garam masala, and a collection of other spices, there were four kinds of dal: chana, masoor, split urad with skins and moong. I've made various kinds of soupy dal using all of them, but it's spring and warm out and isn't there something else I can make with them besides a spicy hot dish?

Turns out there is. I've got a hefty tome by Yamuna Devi called The Art of Vegetarian Indian Cooking, the subcontinent version of Julia Child's opus. On page 573 (of 800 pages) there's something called Dal Munchies or Moong Dalmot. It looked like a perfect change of pace.

Fried Dal

Sort through 1 cup of moong dal and wash in several changes of water until it is clear. Drain, then soak in 4 cups of water and 1 tsp. baking soda for 8 hours or overnight. Rinse, then drain, then pat dry with paper towels and air-dry for 30 minutes.

Heat oil in wok or deep fryer until moderately hot (365 degrees.) Fry 1/4-1/2 cup of dal at a time in a wire mesh strainer just until it floats to the surface. It cooks really fast, so don't overdo it. Drain on paper towels and season with plain salt or any kind of seasoned salt. I used a salt with coriander in it, although you couldn't really taste it. I might try smoked salt next time.
 This is a super-crunchy snack, and you can make it as salty or not as you like. I'm a sucker for salty snacks and with this I can delude myself that it's good for me because it's protein! It was a big hit with drinks before dinner.Be forewarned, though: don't make it if your teeth aren't firmly attached.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Old Beans and Ancient Grains

Ever since I began Monday Beans I've been on the lookout for different and interesting varieties. I'm a member of the East End Food Co-op but they only have the usual kinds. I found the best local selection at Penn Mac, just about my favorite food emporium in Pittsburgh.
Purely on looks alone I picked up some Scarlet Runner Beans, then had to look them up. Turns out they're an heirloom variety, known at least as far back as the eighteenth century and grown in Thomas Jefferson's garden. The vines produce beautiful red blossoms that attract hummingbirds so they're a favorite with backyard gardeners.

These are big beans. I figured they'd be better as a accent ingredient rather than the main thing. A little more poking around and I came across Lorna Sass's Scarlet Runner Beans with Farro Risotto from the book Heirloom Beans by Vanessa Barrington and Steve Sando. (I'm amazed at how many great food blogs there are!) Lorna Sass is queen of the pressure cooker and that brings up an interesting point.
I've been using a pressure cooker for beans since I inherited an old 1940s Presto 6-quart back in the 70s. For Monday Beans, though, I've been cooking the beans the old-fashioned way, soaking overnight and cooking in a saucepan. I just want to get to know the beans a little better and some beans go mushy too quickly in a pressure cooker. So I used Lorna Sass's ingredients as a guide, but I made the risotto the usual way.

I actually had farro in the house and was glad to find an interesting use for it. Farro is an ancient form of wheat and originated around the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Old Bean and Ancient Grain Risotto

2/3 cup scarlet runner beans, soaked overnight
1 small onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. saffron
2 Tbsp. boiling water
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup farro
4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 tsp thyme
1/2 cup grated romano cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the small chopped onion in a little olive oil until transparent. Add the beans and soaking water, bring to a boil, add the bay leaf and reduce heat to simmer. Cook until the beans are tender. This took forever for me. Halfway through I almost reconsidered the whole pressure cooker thing. In the end it took nearly three hours to get the beans to the edible stage. I did this the day before.

To make the risotto, heat the broth to simmering and keep it hot. In a small bowl dissolve the saffron in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. In another saucepan saute the onion in a little olive oil until transparent. Add the farro and stir to combine. Add the saffron water and cook for a minute until fragrant. Add the wine and stir until nearly dry.

Add 1 cup of hot broth and stir until absorbed. Keep adding broth and stirring until all of the broth is incorporated. Add the drained beans and cook for a few more minutes. Stir in the thyme, walnuts and cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.

 My sister-in-law was in town on Monday and we both thought this twist on risotto was great, and the beans themselves were delicious. I think next time I'd add some red pepper flakes and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavor.