"[B]eans still symbolized the dead to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but they also saw them, being the first fruits of the soil, as representing blessings, the bounty of those below the ground."
--Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, History of Food
This December has been a cold one for Houston. Heck, it has even gone below 50 degrees a few nights. With this kind of cold, blustery weather, the best comfort food is a bowl of bean soup.
We Americans do not give enough respect to beans like the Greeks and Romans did and the Europeans do today. Sure, we splat down a spoonful of beans as a side dish, and an afterthought, to a plate of cheese enchiladas or barbecue brisket. But we rarely make beans the center of attention. I had three meals recently that reminded me how wonderful a main course of bean soup can be.
Rioja. Rioja Restaurant in far west Houston (WARNING-way outside the Loop) has the best paella in Houston, the best tapas in Houston, and along with El Meson one of the two best Spanish wine lists in Houston. When I went two weekends ago, however, the waiter's first recommendation was not the paella or tapas, but their winter special -- a bowl of white bean soup with Morcilla sausage. The soup is outstanding. When beans are cooked correctly in a soup -- not too long, not to short -- they are complex and earthy. The beans and broth make a wonderful combination of textures. And in this soup, the wonderfully rich and meaty Morcilla blood sausage put the dish over the top. Go to Rioja now before winter passes and they stop serving this.
Le Bec Fin. Today, I had lunch at Le Bec Fin -- not the 5-star French Restaurant in Philadelphia, but a small Vietnamese-run cafe in Midtown Houston. Le Bec Fin is the best value for French food in Houston, even if it is only open for lunch. Most main courses, like beef bourgignon, come with a great french onion soup or salad and cost less than $8. The most expensive item on the menu, however, is the $14 cassoulet. Cassoulet is French for "pot of beans." The cassoulet at Le Bec Fin is very simple -- a giant bowl of small white beans in broth with a sausage and a quarter baked chicken. If you can handle eating a giant bowl of beans at lunch, I highly recommend it.
My bean soup with fresh tarragon. I tried making my own bean soup this weekend. The secret ingredient to my soup was tarragon. Tarragon loses its flavor when it is cooked for long or when it is dried. Fresh tarragon, however, when added at the last minute to a dish, adds a complex sweet, lemony, anise-like flavor. It is a wonderful pairing with white beans. It was the best dish I have made in a long time. No, you cannot come to my house and have it, but I will give you my recipe:
Chop a large white onion finely, smash several cloves of garlic, dice a handful of unsmoked bacon, chop up a handful of flat leaf parsley, and sautee all these ingredients for 5 or so minutes in a stock pot. Then dump in 2 cups of canned cannelini beans and add two cups of chicken stock. Simmer for 30 minutes with a lid almost completely covering the pot. About 5 minutes before taking the soup off the stove to serve, add a handful of fresh tarragon, and optionally a few handfuls of fresh spinach. Squeeze a little lemon juice in the soup. Serve with crusty European-style bread.
Maybe beans will be the next big thing. Probably not. They are very old-world, very earthy. The earthiness may explain why beans reminded the Greeks and Romans of the dead. In fact, beans for some ancients were taboo because of their association with the dead. Pythagoras had such a taboo against beans that he let himself be killed by his enemies rather than escape by running across a field of beans. Fortunately, most Americans do not have a taboo against beans. We just do not give them enough respect.