Weekend Gourmet

Weekend Gourmet: Give dried beans a sophisticated touch

CorrespondentJanuary 11, 2014 

A creamy lentil risotto is a fresh take on “poor man’s meat.”

FRED THOMPSON

Maybe it’s the pot of dried black-eyed peas simmering away on every Southerner’s stove on New Year’s Day, or it could be the cold weather, but this time of year, dried beans just seem to fit for me. Perhaps you don’t think of pinto beans, great northern beans, navy beans or black-eyed peas as gourmet fare, but all of them can deliver a complexity of flavor and depth that rivals the most “gourmet” of experiences and delivers a power punch of other attributes.

Sure, dried beans have long been considered a “poor man’s” food. Have you ever thought about why? Of course, they’re cheap. Even if you buy the organic and heirloom varieties, dried beans create a lot of food for the money. It’s even more than that. Dried beans, peas and lentils – aka legumes or pulses – are a vital food source, and evidence of their cultivation goes back more than 7,000 years in some parts of the world. They are an excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, along with being flavorful, nutritionally dense and versatile. What more could you ask for?

When the core of our population was farm-based, dried products, along with cured meats and vegetables that could winter in a root cellar, fed families. Both my parents came from farmhouse kitchens, and I looked forward to my mom’s great northern bean suppers. I would put a little ketchup on the beans and think I was a hotshot. Still do that with white beans today on occasion. We owe dried beans their due.

Pinto beans, with a ham hock and onion, Appalachian-style, simmer into a wonder stew. Want to kick that up? Borrow a page from The Bean Barn in Greeneville, Tenn., and have “beans all the way,” which simply is pintos stirred up with stewed beef. Find a recipe for Yankee Bean Soup or luxuriate like a lawmaker with Senate Bean Soup. Red beans and rice toss a little New Orleans in your mouth. Hoppin’ John isn’t just for New Year’s Day. Rosemary, oregano and garlic can transform white beans into a trip to Italy. And what of the French Languedoc region’s famous cassoulet, full of white beans and cured meats?

I love lentils, and I don’t know why I don’t cook them more. They are the quickest of the bunch to prepare, and they have such a sophisticated flavor of the earth. Lentil risotto will surprise you with the creaminess that it develops as it cooks. For this dish, I like using Chapel Hill Creamery’s Thunder Mountain cheese, and Maple View Dairy has truffle butter. Please don’t let the truffle butter stop you from making this risotto. Sure, you can leave it off, or use soy half-and-half, or even a vegan Swiss cheese and vegetable broth if desired. Just give this dish a try, and you will be well rewarded. Let’s eat beans for the new year!

Thompson: fdtfx1@earthlink.net

Lentil Risotto

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup chopped onion (about 1 small)

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 pound dried lentils

4 cups homemade or low-sodium chicken broth

2 cups water

1/2 cup half-and-half

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon truffle butter

PLACE a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat and add the butter. When the butter stops foaming, throw in the onions, and cook until translucent, about 3-4 minutes.

ADD the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the lentils and stir them around for 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and the water and stir constantly. Adjust your temperature to medium-high and cook for 30 minutes, stirring as the liquid evaporates.

ADD the half-and-half and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese, sherry vinegar and truffle butter. Remove from pan to a serving platter and serve immediately. Risotto waits for no one.

Serve with: While you can certainly use this as a side dish with lamb, pork or beef, I mainly have it as a meatless entrée coupled with a salad and some seasonal fruit.

To Drink: A Cotes du Rhone pairs well with the earthiness of this dish.

Yield: 4-6 servings.

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