With his new cookbook, Joe Yonan wants us all to get hip to what he’s known a long time: Beans are cool.
Earlier this year, as we were scooping up beans in all forms and loading them into our grocery carts, in a flash of synchronicity, Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein was released. But, as the longtime food editor and author says, “Beans have been cool since way before quarantine.”
Five years in the making, the cookbook’s become a hit. A testament to Yonan’s big love for beans, from the pintos of his West Texas childhood to today’s heirloom varieties, it’s filled with recipes — 125 of them — that run from simple (your new favorite DIY hummus that comes together in the time it takes to open a can) to surprising (how about some ice cream made with red adzuki beans?) to supremely satisfying (a good ol’ bowl of Lone Star-style red beans).
The food and dining editor of The Washington Post, Yonan — who usually keeps 50 to 60 pounds of dried beans on hand — has been about spreading the word that beans should be a pantry staple for all of us, no matter what’s going on in the world. We caught up with him at his home in the nation’s capital, where he’d just finished making a pot of his Texas-Style Bowl O’ Red Beans for dinner.
Cowboys & Indians: Your bean roots run deep. You grew up immersed in Mexican American culture in West Texas, where beans are a much-loved staple. How did this influence your love of beans?
Joe Yonan: When I was growing up in San Angelo, we ate at Tex-Mex restaurants all the time. It was my go-to cuisine. I ate beans all the time, beans and rice, always on the side. When I was in college at University of Texas at Austin and started cooking for myself, I started playing around with all the things you could make with beans. There was also this restaurant we used to go to, at least a couple of times a week, and I’d always get a bowl of black beans and brown rice, and it came with cheese, sour cream, guac, and salsa, and I can’t remember how much it was, but it was the mid-’80s, so it was probably like $3. I could have a coffee in the morning and that in the middle of the day and not eat anything else.
C&I: When did beans become more than a cheap protein source, which they still definitely are?
Yonan: When I turned to a vegetarian diet 12 years ago, that’s when my eyes opened about the variety of beans and the variety of uses. I was depending on beans for my diet, but I wasn’t poor anymore. I wasn’t eating beans because I had to. It was because it was the best thing for my diet, and that meant that I got to experiment and play around.
C&I: This is hardly your first rodeo when it comes to cookbooks. You edited America the Great Cookbook: The Food We Make for the People We Love From 100 of Our Finest Chefs and Food Heroes (2017), and you wrote Eat Your Vegetables (2013) and Serve Yourself (2011). In the new cookbook you’re clearly captivated by beans and speak about “the power of a humble bowl of beans.” What do you mean by that?
Yonan: They’re incredibly complex and layered in flavor — and at the same time almost elemental. Beans have the ability to satisfy and nurture you with very few other ingredients. There have been studies that show meals based on beans are more satisfying than meals based on animal products. Beans also have this strong history in so many cultures, when people needed something affordable and nutritious.
C&I: You point out in your book that beans, like many ingredients, have different flavor profiles. I’d never thought of beans that way.
Yonan: I think of them in categories. The lima and the Greek gigante are big and meaty, like the fava. Some beans are pretty unique, like the chickpea. There are some varieties — an Italian wild one and a black one — but there’s nothing like a chickpea. The book’s cover dish uses great northern beans with broccoli rabe and chile oil. Obviously you could substitute cannellini beans or navys, but you could also use chickpeas and it wouldn’t clash; it would just be different. You could use a pinto or a borlotti.
C&I: I was surprised to see that you include canned beans in your recipes.
Yonan: I don’t want people to think that they can’t enjoy beans unless they get great beans [and cook them themselves]. I think beans are one of the great conveniences. You can get some very good canned beans. I always have canned beans around.
C&I: Still, dried beans can be hard to cook. What’s one simple tip you have for people when it comes to cooking beans?
Yonan: As soon as you ask people a little more about what they did or didn’t do to beans to make them awful, it’s usually fairly clear. They’ll say, “I cooked and cooked them, and they never got tender.” Where did you get them? Do you have any idea how old they might be? If you don’t know how old your beans are, it’s a good idea to soak them, which I think of as an insurance policy. Hard water can also really affect the cooking of beans. The easiest thing to do is add a pinch of baking soda to the cooking water if your water is hard.
C&I: Soak or not?
Yonan: Soaking is not a requirement. If you think you can’t make beans for dinner tonight because you didn’t soak them, don’t worry about it. Don’t let soaking come between you and a great pot of beans for dinner. Soaking only saves 25 percent of the cooking time. Yes, there are reasons you might want to soak: It does help with flatulence, but so does adding kombu or epazote to the cooking water, or pressure-cooking them.
C&I: What’s one bean everyone should know how to cook?
Yonan: A black bean. Just some salt and garlic and cumin. There’s so much you can do with black beans. Refried black beans — oh my God. I love a black bean.
C&I: What are people most surprised by when it comes to beans?
Yonan: When people have good quality beans and learn to cook them well, the most surprising thing is they don’t need that much. I realize the traditional thinking around beans is that they need a big piece of cured pork — and I’m not going to deprive anybody of what they want — but the truth is, when they’re simply seasoned they have a rich flavor all their own. By seasoning them simply for that first cooking, you can use them in all sorts of dishes — soups, salads, pasta dishes, dips — that you flavor in different ways. Nothing is as versatile.
Texas-Style Bowl O’ Red Beans (Chile con Frijoles)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
I was once a chili purist: one of those Texans who says that real chili is little more than chile peppers and meat, plus seasonings. That’s why its original name is chile con carne. All that went out the window when I became vegetarian, and I embraced the anything-goes approach to chili making: beans, sure, but also sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, and corn, even jackfruit at one point or another. Then one day I found myself with a real hankering for that purist’s chili again and thought, what if the only substitution I made were beans instead of meat? I dusted off my favorite Texas “bowl o’ red” recipes — developed with the help of my brother, Michael — and got to work. With a combination of red kidney and black beans and seasoning that depends mostly on ancho chile peppers, this has the round flavors and slow-burning heat that I love, and I’ve made it for many a party. (And when I switched from my Dutch oven to a pressure cooker, the dish turned from an all-day to a weeknight recipe.) Serve with saltines or tortillas, grated cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, and sour cream, if you’d like.
- 6 dried ancho chiles, rinsed
- Hot water
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)
- 8 ounces dried red kidney beans, rinsed
- 4 ounces dried black beans, rinsed
Cut or tear the ancho chiles into 2-inch or so pieces, discarding the seeds and steams. Place in a dry skillet over medium heat and toast for about 5 minutes, just until fragrant, without allowing them to char. Transfer to a blender, add 5 cups hot water, and blend until smooth.
Heat the oil in a stovetop or electric pressure cooker, uncovered, over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, and paprika, and cook, stirring, until very fragrant, about 1 minute.
Stir in the red kidney and black beans, along with the ancho mixture, plus more water as needed to cover the beans by 1 inch. Lock on the lid, bring the cooker up to high pressure, and cook for 45 minutes if using a stovetop model or 55 minutes for electric. Let the pressure naturally release, then open. (Alternatively, you can make in a Dutch oven, cover and cook over low heat until the beans are very tender, up to 4 to 5 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water if the beans seem dry on top.)
Use a masher to lightly mash some of the beans in the pot, leaving some whole while thickening the chili. Stir in more water to loosen, if necessary, and add more salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm, with the accompaniments of your choice.
Kidney Bean And Poblano Tacos With Quick-Pickled Onion
Makes 6 tacos
As much as I love pinto and black beans in tacos, this recipe proves that kidney beans, with their beautiful crimson color and hearty texture, belong in them, too. I like to pair them with thick slices of mild poblano pepper, whose hint of heat and bitterness sets off the beans’ creaminess. And nothing beats the addition of pickled onions; you’ll have more than you need for this recipe, but they will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.
- ¼ cup fresh grapefruit juice
- ¼ cup fresh orange juice
- ¼ cup fresh lime juice
- ¼ cup white distilled vinegar
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 poblano peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into ½-inch slices
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)
- ½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1¾ cups cooked or canned no-salt-added red kidney beans (from one 15-ounce can), drained but not rinsed
- 6 (6-inch) corn tortillas
- ½ cup Fastest-Ever Smoky Red Salsa or your favorite store-bought salsa
- ½ cup Herb-Marinated Tofu Feta or store-bought vegan or dairy feta, crumbled
- Toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
To make the pickled onions: Combine the grapefruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, and vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and add the red onion. Let cool in the pan. (To store what you don’t need for this recipe, transfer them to a quart-size Mason jar and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.)
To make the filling: Pour the olive oil into a large skillet over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the poblanos, onion, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables start to soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle in the cumin, cinnamon, paprika, salt, and pepper and cook for another minute or two, until the spices are very fragrant. Stir in the beans, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook just until warmed through. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm.
Warm the tortillas in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for a few seconds on each side; then transfer as they’re heated to a packet of foil.
To assemble the tacos, lay out the tortillas and top each with some of the bean-poblano mixture. Top each with a spoonful of the salsa, feta, pumpkin seeds, and a few slices of pickled onions and serve hot.
Lentil, Zucchini, and Cherry Tomato Sloppy Joes
Makes 6 servings
In my book Eat Your Vegetables, I wrote about how I don’t tend to use much mock meat, preferring to cook — and eat — vegetables. But I conceded that when it came to a Sloppy Joe, chorizo-spiced seitan was a pretty good fit. Well, now I say to my 2013 self: What were you thinking, when you’ve got lentils around, just waiting to enrich that sauce with protein and earthy goodness? Always changing, always growing. I also know what not to change, namely the textural interest that zucchini and cherry tomatoes bring and the zing of sour pickles.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon ground ancho chile
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 2 small zucchini, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 cups cooked brown lentils, drained and rinsed
- 1 teaspoon light or dark brown sugar
- 6 Kaiser rolls or sturdy buns, warmed but not toasted
- 12 sour pickle slices
Pour the olive oil into a large skillet over medium heat. When it shimmers, stir in the onion and garlic and sauté until they soften, about 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, ground chile, salt, and red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Stir in the cherry tomatoes and zucchini and cook until the tomatoes collapse, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the lentils and brown sugar and increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil; then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the squash is tender but not mushy and a thick sauce has formed. Taste and add more salt if needed. Let cool slightly.
Divide the bottom buns among six plates. Spoon the warm filling onto the buns, top with the pickles and the top buns, and serve.
Recipes excerpted from Cool Beans. Used by permission.
Photography: Images courtesy Joe Yonan
From our October 2020 issue.