About Dried Beans

Rombauer writes that dried beans are “on the dull side and much like dull people respond readily to the right contacts.” In my experience, dull people rarely respond to anything with any degree of alacrity and never seem to benefit as a result. Once a schmuck, always a schmuck, I say. Dried legumes, however, respond beautifully to moisture and heat, and with the addition of other ingredients, these wallflowers in the pantry dance on the table.

Dried beans are cheap and can be stored for a long time, but after a year they aren’t able to absorb enough moisture to be palatable. You can probably plant them, but not eat them. Dried beans are also easy to cook, but like most cooking, it’s a matter of procedure. First the beans must be cleaned. On every bag of dried beans, you should find a warning stating something like, “Beans are a natural agricultural product. Despite use of modern cleaning equipment, it is not always possible to remove all foreign material. Sort and rinse beans before cooking.” I cannot stress how important it is to sort and pick through dried beans before washing. Spread the beans in a single layer on a cookie sheet and pick out everything that isn’t a bean. You’re likely to find pebbles, little clods of dirt, sticks, and stems, none of which should find your way into your mouth. Put the sorted beans in a colander and rinse them twice, then pour into a container and cover with water. Remove any beans that float. Pour the cleaned, sorted beans back into the colander to drain.

While most people hydrate beans by soaking them overnight, you can simply dump dried beans in twice the amount of water and cook them for three or four hours on a moderate heat, adding water as necessary. It takes much less time if you cover beans with water, 2:1, bring to a hard boil for five minutes then shut off and soak for an hour. Again, cook beans in twice the amount water, but you may find you need to add more as they cook. Do not add salt. If you add salt in the cooking water before the beans are cooked, the skins will be tough. Salt when the beans are cooked through. This might not seem a big deal, but it is. Also do not add tomatoes or tomato sauce until the beans are done; some people will tell you that if you soak the beans, you can add tomatoes, but I’ve found it takes much longer for the beans to cook if you do. I always add one cup chopped onion and a couple of smashed chopped cloves of garlic per two cups (1 pound) dried beans.

I always use a flame-buster and a moderate heat when cooking beans. If you scorch a pot of beans, I don’t care who says you can save them and how, trust me when I tell you to throw them away and start over. Different types of beans cook differently, but generally speaking, a cup of dried peas or beans will make two to two and a half cups cooked.

Guinness Stout Brownies

You’ll often find recipes using an alcoholic beverage, particularly wine, of course, but also rum, bourbon, and beer. While some teetotalers recoil at making such recipes, if the dish is heated to anywhere near the boiling point, the alcohol evaporates, leaving only the flavor of the beverage. To concentrate the flavor of the beer in this recipe, some people will actually take an entire bottle of Guinness and boil it down to the 12 ounces called for here for more intensity, but that’s just an option.

4 eggs
3⁄4 cup superfine sugar
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
3⁄4 cup cocoa
1 1⁄4 cups Guinness stout

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and butter an 8-inch-square pan. Combine the eggs and sugar, beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Melt the bittersweet chocolate, white chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth. I do this is in a glass bowl the microwave. Beat into the egg mixture. Sift the flour and cocoa together and beat into the chocolate mixture. Whisk in the Guinness, which should be at room temperature. Pour into the pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Cool on a wire rack before slicing. You can dust this with confectioner’s sugar, if you like, and you can also add a half cup chopped nuts; pistachios would be appropriate.

Chard in the Yard

Like many gardeners in the Deep South, I grow leaf vegetables and greens during our mild winters as much for their beauty as for their taste—the lemon-yellow spikes of bolting mustard and collard provide luminous company for spring dandelions and daffodils. For many years, I’ve dismissed rainbow chard, with its bold greens, sassy yellows and reds, as gaudy, but this year, I decided I was just being a closet case and planted a plot of them. They thrived. Every time I pass them I feel like putting on a pair of heels and tossing glitter. Mix chard with spinach, bib lettuce and bok choy, dress with vinegar and oil.

Bahr on the M&SV

Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.

The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.

The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:

§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.

Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.

On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.