Things You Can Do With A Big Pot of Beans (Or: My Take on the Mediterranean Diet)

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The New York Times recently published an article with a powerful first sentence: “About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and even drink wine with meals, a large and rigorous new study has found.”

I like this news because it’s not like it’s saying “all delicious things are bad for you!” It’s saying: “Hey, you can eat really delicious things, just not In-N-Out burgers and milkshakes, ok?” And though I don’t imagine I’ll be giving those up any time soon, it’s good to know that I can maintain a mostly Mediterranean diet by doing the following: pouring a bag of dried beans into a bowl of cold water before starting my day.

It’s really as simple as that: open the bag, pour the beans into a bowl, fill it with water.

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Once you’ve done that you’ve set yourself on a course for a legume-filled week of mostly healthy eating. I say “mostly” because I may or may not have added bacon to the beans when I cooked them. More on that in a second.

Because this approach to the Mediterranean diet is so bean-heavy, it pays to get yourself some nice beans. I’ve sung the praises of Rancho Gordo before on the blog (see here) but they really are the crown jewels of dried beans and if you make a bag last a whole week, like I do, they really pay for themselves.

So let me walk you through it: soak those beans in the morning and then when you come home, 8 hours later, pour out the water, dump the soaked beans into a pot, fill it again with cold water, add an onion, a head of garlic, a dried red chili, some bay leaves, peppercorns, anything you have on hand. There’s no hard and fast rule. You’re just flavoring the water. Then turn up the heat, bring it to a low boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 90 minutes or so until the beans are still firm on the outside, but creamy on the inside. Also: add salt either halfway through or towards the end, depending on your bean belief system.

Once the beans are cooked, take a ladle and conserve some of that bean cooking liquid: about 1 1/2 cups. Then drain the beans and wipe out the pot you cooked them in. No need to scrub it clean.

This last step is where the big flavor happens: in my case, I rendered some bacon, about 3 strips cut into lardons. You could use sausage here or just pour in olive oil and cook an onion until it’s brown. The point is, at this point, you’re kind of making a flavorful bean sauce to coat the beans. So if you do it my way, render the bacon a bit in olive oil, just until it starts to crisp, then add a chopped onion and 3 cloves of chopped garlic. Cook until the garlic’s fragrant (if you have carrots and celery, you could add them here too) then add back your beans and some of that liquid. Cook, stirring and tasting for salt and flavor. When I tasted with this particular batch of beans, I felt like it still needed something: so I added a few squirts of Sriracha. That did the trick.

At that point, you have your beans for the week. Now what to do with them?

That first night, I served the beans on rice to make beans and rice: a classic combination:

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I topped it with lots of chopped parsley to give it some color and an herbaceous note, but that’s not entirely necessary. What’s nice about this is that it totally fills you up and also it’s good for you in a Mediterranean Diet sense. Score one for my heart!

The next morning, I made something that would also work as dinner: olive oil fried eggs on top of the beans with arugula salad on the side.

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The egg yolk, if you keep it soft, coats the beans and makes for a luxurious egg/bean experience. The salad makes it healthier and even more Mediterranean (remember: fruits and vegetables!).

My proudest achievement, though, was the dinner I made on Saturday night. Bean bruschetta:

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(That’s goat cheese bruschetta next to it, let’s ignore it: it’s not on the diet.)

Basically, following my toast principles, I bought a big loaf of multi-grain La Brea bakery bread and sliced thick slices. I toasted them in the toaster (though a broiler would’ve worked even better to get the char you want), rubbed the toast with a clove of garlic, drizzled olive oil on top, put on a layer of arugula I’d tossed with olive oil and lemon juice and then piled on the cold beans. I drizzled more oil on top of the beans and then sprinkled with flaky Maldon sea salt.

It was a real treat–like the first course they give you at Babbo (chickpeas on toast)–and a great thing to eat with a glass of wine while watching “West Side Story” on Turner Classic Movies.

So there you are: my approach to the Mediterranean Diet. Sure, it had bacon in it, but it didn’t have to. Those beans would’ve been excellent just by themselves.

Hope you’re inspired to cook up a big pot of beans… just don’t blame me if the gas they produce ends your marriage. At least you’ll still be alive to find another mate!

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