Classy (but cheap) party fare

New York TimesFebruary 26, 2013 

“What budget-conscious, vegetarian dinner party dish can you think of that’s as impressive as beef Bourguignon, can be made entirely in advance, doesn’t involve tofu and will be satisfying enough for meat eaters?”

After much discussion, the answer we came up with was: a big pot of beans stewed with red wine.

The rationale went like this: Beans can be made ahead and get better after sitting a few days. The red wine, cooked down to syrup, adds intensity, complexity and that certain company-worthy fanciness to the whole thing. And even if you splurge on heirloom beans, it’s still less expensive than beef.

The idea stuck with me for weeks before I decided to try it. To get the most intense flavor out of the red wine, I used a classic beef-stew trick taught to me by chef Daniel Boulud when I was working on one of his cookbooks.

Instead of adding a bottle of red wine directly to the pot along with the meat, Boulud would simmer the wine first in a little saucepan on the stove until it condensed. Then he would use the concentrated wine to braise the meat. This resulted in a richer, more intense sauce.

I fiddled with the method a bit to translate it to the bean pot. Instead of taking 30 minutes to reduce the wine before cooking the beans, which would then need at least another hour to soften, I simmered beans and wine at the same time next to each other on the stove.

Once the beans were soft and the wine reduced, I combined them and continued to simmer for a few more minutes to bring the flavors together and allow the sauce to thicken. Then I served it all over polenta, although egg noodles or rice would have been nice, too.

The next time I craved the red wine beans, I completely ignored their vegetarian origin and added bacon to the mix. I liked it even better.

Since then I’ve made the dish several times, with smoky bacon, not-so-smoky bacon, with white wine instead of red, and once without any wine at all (just leave it out). I’ve also added extra water and thinned it down into a hearty soup. All these variations work well, which goes to show what an adaptable recipe this is. So take it and have your way with it. Whether you’re vegetarian, meat eater, soup slurper, wine lover or none of the above, the only thing you need is a fondness for beans. That part is nonnegotiable.

For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:

Red Wine Pinto Beans with Smoky Bacon

Red Wine Pinto Beans With Smoky Bacon 1/2 pound smoky bacon, diced 1 large onion, peeled and diced 2 celery stalks, diced 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced 4 garlic cloves, minced 2 large sprigs rosemary 1 pound dried pinto beans, soaked overnight 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt, more to taste 2 cups dry red wine Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving (optional) Coarsely grated Parmesan, for serving (optional) Coarsely ground black pepper or red pepper flakes, for serving (optional)

PLACE bacon in a large pot. Brown over medium-high heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in onion, celery, carrots, garlic and rosemary. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, 5 to 7 minutes.

DRAIN beans and add to pot along with 1 tablespoon salt. Pour in enough water to just cover the beans (about 7 to 8 cups). Bring liquid to a boil; reduce heat and simmer gently until beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

MEANWHILE, in a small pot over medium heat, simmer wine until it is reduced to 2/3 cup, 20 to 30 minutes.

REMOVE rosemary branches from bean pot and discard them. Pour wine into beans and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 to 20 minutes longer to meld flavors and thicken broth to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired; add more salt and black or red pepper to taste.

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