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Three Legume Experts Break Down Exactly What Makes ‘Cool Beans’

You may as well get to know what’s in those two dozen tins at the back of your pantry

Beans are having a moment. “We’re very busy packing and shipping beans these days,” Charley Baer, a bean farmer of 34 years, tells me in his thick New England accent. Since the onset of the coronavirus in the U.S., bean farmers have been working overtime to stock the shelves in grocery stores whose bean aisles have been left bare. Goya has even stated that the sale of some beans has increased by 400 percent.

You might say that beans are cooler now than ever before, but fortunately, no one seems to be bringing back that long-dead term of approval, “cool beans.” While born of ambiguous origins, the expression “cool beans” became popular in the 1960s and enjoyed one last hurrah in the 1990s, when it became DJ Tanner’s catch phrase on Full House. Since then, it’s been used pretty sparingly, and usually only in an ironic sense.

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But since beans are trending for the first time since trending has been a thing, it’s time to talk to Baer — and a couple of bean chefs — to finally figure out which bean is, indeed, the coolest.

On the Coolest Thing About Beans

Charley Baer, bean farmer and owner of Baer’s Best: I’d say the coolest thing about beans is that they’re nonperishable. They’re a great nutritional source — they’re very high in fiber and protein and they’re low in fat. And, up until now anyway, they’ve been an underutilized food source in this country. We’ve mostly relied on meat for our protein, but lately people are thinking more about vegetable-based protein, of which beans are an ideal source.

Julie Van Rosendaal, cook and food writer at Dinner with Julie and co-author of Spilling The Beans: Cooking and Baking With Beans and Grains Every Day: The coolest thing that people don’t realize is that beans are so good for the soil. When farmers are doing crop rotations, beans fix the nitrogen in the soil and make the soil healthier, which is true of other pulses as well, like chickpeas and lentils. A lot of people say “legumes”; that, however, includes peanuts and some other odd things as well — even if they’re generally talking about beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are all pulses. That’s why I think the word “pulses” should catch on more.

Joe Yonan, food and dining editor for The Washington Post and author of Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein with 125 Recipes: The coolest thing about beans is that they’re shelf stable and ready to be put into incredibly versatile use any time you want. There’s also the fact that they’re the only food that the USDA classifies as both a vegetable and a protein. I can’t think of another source of such nutrition that’s shelf stable and so versatile.

On Why Beans Are Stored in a Cool, Dry Area

Van Rosendaal: In general, food can be denatured by light and exposure to air, so that’s just general advice for storing anything in a pantry.

On Which Bean Is Best Served Cool

Baer: We like to use colorful beans like Appaloosa, calypso or Jacob’s Cattle, which keep their color pattern after they’re cooked. Most beans fade after they’re cooked, so these stay colorful and are nice to serve in a salad after they’ve cooled down.

Van Rosendaal: Things like red kidney beans and chickpeas are really great in cold bean salads. Lentil salads are great too.

Yonan: The chickpea. It holds its shape really well whether you cook it from dry or use it from a can. You can, of course, puree it into the world’s best, most popular, most incredible dip: hummus. I prefer hummus not to be cold, but cool is fine.

On How Long It Takes For Beans to Cool Down

Yonan: I can’t say that I’ve ever timed that.

Baer: Like any other hot product, it probably takes an hour or two to cool at room temperature — it depends on how many you cook, though.

Van Rosendaal: It depends on the bean. The bigger ones like lima beans will take longer and the small ones, like lentils, will be fast, but if you take them out of their cooking vessel and put them in a bowl or even on a plate, they’ll cool down faster. Spreading them out or putting them in a colander under cool water will help.

On the Best Beans to Eat in Cool Weather

Baer: Cool weather is traditionally when we sell most of our beans, though this year might be different. People like making bean soups and chilis, and there are all kinds of beans you can use for that.

Yonan: Baked beans — New England-style baked beans cooked low and slow. In my book I have a recipe called “Homesteader’s Baked Beans,” which is traditionally done with cattle beans. For that, you cook the beans twice, once fairly simply, then you add all the flavors like onions, molasses, maple syrup, dry mustard, smoked paprika, ground ginger and salt and pepper. Next, you bake them at a really low temperature. It takes hours, but that’s perfect while you’re around the house all day. When you pull them out, you add apple cider vinegar and seasonings and they’re just fantastic.

Van Rosendaal: All of them. Chickpeas and lentils may be best, but I’d say all of them.

On Their Coolest Bean Story

Baer: Lots of times, people ask me if beans grow underground, and they don’t. People often don’t know a thing about beans. They’re like green beans — they’re bush plants that grow a foot and a half tall and the seeds are formed in pods. 

Van Rosendaal: So, I like to put beans in baking, especially split red lentils. I cook them and put them in scones, muffins and cookies and people have no idea that they’re in there. It adds a lot of fiber and protein to make them more nutritious, and you don’t taste them at all. 

Anyway, my favorite bean story happened where I work, at CBC radio in Calgary. The host of the morning show that I’m on isn’t a fan of lentils — he’s very vocal about it. Every Tuesday on the show, I bring food in and he tastes it on the show. From January until April last year, I put lentils into everything I made. Then on April Fools’ Day, I revealed on the air that I’d put lentils in literally everything I’d brought, then the director played all these clips of the host saying how much he loved everything. That’s still a running joke at the office, everything I bring, everyone always asks if there are lentils in it.

Yonan: My coolest bean story would probably have to be when I went to Mexico City on my honeymoon. My husband and I were eating a lot of beans because I had a contract for a bean cookbook. While there, I’d heard about this chef who owned a restaurant called Maximo Bistrot. I’d heard that he made a mean pot of beans and had a lot of opinions about beans, so I went and interviewed him and he was great. Then he started talking about these special beans that he gets from this one region in Mexico and that they were really incredible. He was sad to report, though, that he was out of them at the moment. And I, the guy who had a bean cookbook contract and who went to Mexico City on his honeymoon to taste beans, wasn’t happy that he was out of them, so he ended up inviting us back after he got them that weekend. 

We went back that weekend. I don’t speak much Spanish, so it took forever for me to explain to the waiter that I only wanted the beans. It was all pretty hilarious, but he finally confirmed with the chef and it all got cleared up. Then we got the beans, which were honestly the best pot of beans I’d ever had — they had an amazing depth of flavor. But I was trying to think of how I could adapt this for my book, especially since they were such rare beans from a particular region in Mexico. The chef had said they were “cacahuete beans,” which means peanut bean, but I was thinking about it while I was eating them and I thought that cranberry beans might be a good substitute for them. 

Later on, in my hotel, I was doing all this research online to find out more about these beans and as it turns out, cacahuete beans are cranberry beans. It seems I’d built this whole story up in my head about these rare beans, but you can find cranberry beans pretty easily.

On Which Bean is the Coolest

Van Rosendaal: Oh my God, that’s a hard question! Can I count lentils? I guess I’d say red lentils because they disguise themselves so well and you don’t have to soak them first. As for actual beans, I like white kidney beans, also known as cannellini beans, because I like to puree them and put them into white pizza dough — it doesn’t change the texture or the flavor. I prefer that over the flavor of wheat dough, which people often eat for fiber, but pulses have way more fiber.

Baer: My favorite is the sulfur bean. It has a horrible name thanks to its sulfur-yellow color, but a mild, delicate flavor. It’s part of the old-time New England variety from the Bangor, Maine area. I specialize in growing heirloom dry beans of the northeast, and sulfur beans are one of the rarest. They take about an hour to cook and have a creamy, delicious texture. Yonan: I already talked about the chickpea, so I can’t say that again. I guess I’ll go with the gigante bean. It’s a Greek bean, and it’s like the biggest lima bean that you’ve ever had. They’re nice and creamy, and there’s a ton of fun cooking to do with it. I guess what I’m saying is that I like big beans and I cannot lie.