all the bodies that no longer breathe or move
and every soul that reaches but cannot grasp the thing it loves.
Save us to a grace we cannot ever hope to understand,
such that in our dyings-behold-somehow?-we live.
“Wednesday, Ash” by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Every year I celebrate a 40-day period of self-deprivation and reflection, and every year I’m reminded of how astonishing this is. Astonishing and difficult. It’s a time of forced contemplation. Every year I’m amazed at how short I fall of being who I want to be. This is a hopeful thing. It means that there are places that I can go, and being aware of it means that I can change.
Lent is a time of austerity. Today I’ll be fasting, toast with peanut butter for breakfast, soup for dinner. Nothing save water for the twelve hours in between, where I will notice the individual sharpness of each pain of hunger, and when I eat again I will want to weep with gratitude that I have food to consume, every day, every meal. This is a simple but most elemental blessing that I often forget. Too often I focus on what I don’t have rather than what I do.
It is a time of miracles. The winter thaws and spring begins. Easter always seems to herald the coming of spring. Things are desolate, but there is hope. I am arrogant, and I am humbled. It’s a time to delve deeper into prayer, into looking at myself and asking who I am meant to be. It’s a time for simple foods and poetry and waiting. It’s a time to grieve before the rejoicing. And at the end of Lent there’s Easter, a time for asparagus and lemon meringue pie, with Jesus risen and Alleluia sung.
In the mode of austerity I give you beans. This is actually quite a generous gift, as beans are the perfect food for almost every occasion. They take well to austerity and to abundance. They are inexpensive, full of protean and fiber, and when cooked correctly can taste almost luxurious. If you’ve never cooked beans before, know that they are easy to make and fantastically more delicious than what comes from a can. Regardless of the meaning or lack of meaning Lent holds for you, beans make simple feasts hearty and heartening. May you spend this coming spring flush in beans.
A Pot of Beans
adapted from the brilliant An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler
The slower you cook beans the better. They will be good if cooked in an hour or two, but incandescent after four or so hours. I’ve also made good beans in a slow cooker- soak overnight, cover with scraps, and put on low for the day. I keep a freezer bag full of vegetable scraps- pieces of fennel, leek tops, halves of onions, parsley stem. If you don’t have enough scraps you could add a quarter or two of onion and a roughly chopped carrot.
1 pound dried beans
Parmesan rind (optional)
Run your fingers through the beans, looking for stones or bad looking beans. Overnight soak the beans in fresh, cold water, covering by a few inches.
The next day drain the beans and add to a stockpot. Cover the beans with water to two inches over. Add the vegetable scraps- cut up carrots, onion pieces, ends of leeks- and any herbs, if using. I like parsley and thyme, but those are also ones I tend to keep on hand. Add a healthy pinch of salt, a good glug of olive oil, and a Parmesan rind and bring the pot to boil. Once the pot is boiling, bring down to a bare simmer, and skim any foam that comes to the top, as well as any beans that come to the top and won’t bob down.
Let the beans simmer very slowly. The beans are done when you taste five beans and each of them is cooked just as you want them to taste. Let cool, discard the vegetable scraps, and store in the broth. The beans will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator, and indefinitely in the freezer.
Some of my favorite uses for beans:
Cook short pasta and add beans with their broth to the pot. Make a sauce of the bean broth by concentrating it and stirring in a little butter.
Top a baked potato with beans, butter, salt, and parsley.
Combine beans, rice, and half a can of crushed tomatoes and heat through. I lived almost exclusively on this my senior year of college, and when I was feeling rather extravagant I would add sausage or avocado.
Throw into chili and soup. It’s hearty and delicious.
Smash up beans with olive oil and eat on top of toast. This is fantastic topped with garlicky kale.
Use the bean broth in soups and sauces. The broth is the best part, seriously. Don’t discard it.