… Beans With Respect
(c) 2014, Davd

Among bean cooking, chili has a special prominence. Many people who generally avoid beans, like chili. While pea soup and even pintos with oregano and chili powder, aren’t distinctively men’s [nor women’s] cooking, chili is very often seen as masculine. It’s not because of the beef, either, as i shall now undertake to prove—by telling you how to make really good chili with no meat in it. The essence of chili seems to be beans, tomatoes, and Mexican spicing… not beef.

The tomatoes in my garden are starting to ripen, which should imply that the gardens in most of BC south of Prince George, mainland Nova Scotia, and the populous part of Ontario are now ripening enough fruit that besides salads and sandwiches, there will be some for cooking—which i take as my cue to post “the chili blog.” If you live in an apartment, or read this after tomato season has ended—don’t worry. Canned crushed or diced tomatoes produce good chili.

The first few times you make chili, i suggest you allow plenty of attention for the job. It’s a skill that could be called hand-to-eye coordination, but in fact, it’s hand to eye to nose to taste coordination. So is all cooking, but when you make porridge or coffee, even salsa-picante or tuna and noodles, with the techniques i’ve posted earlier, the follow-the-recipe approach usually produces good results and you can refine your skills with time. Chili seems to be more demanding.

Though chili-sin-carne follows the same basic cooking pattern as beans generally, with overnight soaking; the tomatoes complicate things enough that i cannot tell you mechanically “what to do”. Times run long (as they do with pintos and to some extent with black beans); and chili, like pea soup and pintos, benefits from savory, onion, and celery or liveche; but the other seasonings are distinctive.

You can make chili with pintos, but red kidney beans are the best, at least in my humble opinion. I prefer the dark red ones to the light, having tried both.

Because chili involves tomatoes, the amount of beans to cook must be in ratio to the amount of tomato—not exact ratio, but within a fairly narrow range. The amounts i write here are for a single man who will eat much less than half of even this sized batch of chili “fresh cooked.” and put well over half into the fridge to eat later. For a group of three or more, i suggest doubling this recipe, especially when using canned tomatoes, once you have tried it a few times and made any adjustments to the seasonings that your taste calls for. That way one batch will use one ,8 litre = 28 ounce can of tomatoes—no half cans of tomatoes taking up fridge or freezer space.

The basic pattern, to repeat, is:
[1] Soak with savory, and at least overnight for beans;
[2] add a little soda for quicker cooking,
[3] season with herbs (and smoked fat for white but not red, black, or pinto beans),
[4] bring to boiling (stirring down foam is more a problem with black beans than reds or pintos, but still requires attention) and
[5] simmer until the texture is “done”, which with these beans will require one to three hours.

First thing to do is measure out the beans: I use a “pasta sauce jar” which held 650-700 ml [about 24 oz, or three US measuring cups] of sauce, and i would suggest starting with at least half a litre [two measuring cups if you’re using ounce measures] of dry beans, because the work takes about as much time for more as for less, and chili keeps well—some say, improves with a day or two in the ‘fridge. I find that half a 28-ounce [796 ml] can of tomatoes provides the right proportion of tomato to one “pasta sauce jar” of dry beans, so i use one of those pasta sauce jars as my measure.

Having measured out the beans, measure 3-4 times that volume of water (or vegetable stock) into another pot, add some savory if you have savory, and bring it to the boil. If you have added savory, lower the heat to a gentle bubbling, and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Then turn off the electricity if you used an electric stove, and pour the boiling water onto the beans. (You can also put the beans in a bowl or empty plastic container, or leave them in the jar; heat the water in the pot you’ll use to cook the chili, and pour in the beans when it’s simmered.)

Next, let the dry beans soak up water for 8-12 hours. (They shouldn’t need longer, but especially in cool weather, they can soak for a full 24-hour day without harm. Simmering the savory and putting the beans to soak in the evening works well if you’ll have chili for lunch or even dinner/supper, the next day.) When they’re ready, they will have visibly swelled and there will be much less water on top of them.

Since acid legumes take much longer to cook, add some baking soda to the beans when you put them in the pot to cook (or if they soaked in that same pot, when they’re about to go on the heat.) A level teaspoon or a little less should do. Stir the soda in well, and you might see some bubbles—perhaps less likely than with peas or lentils.

While heating the beans in their soaking stock, fry some onion in beef fat or vegetable oil (you can use only chive if you’ve an abundance of chive growing in your garden, but i believe from old habit, that some browned onion taste is good in chili.) If you use only onion, no chive, then brown one onion the size of a tennis ball, as a first estimate, and adjust depending on how much you and the men who eat with you, want more or less onion in future batches. Still, i’ve made mighty fine chili with chives as the only onion contribution. (And by the way, vegetable oil is healthier; but some people prefer the slight taste of beef that beef fat provides.)

Add chili powder [of course] abut twice as much as for pintos—my cooking spoons are nearer to two than three teaspoonfuls in size, and i add two rounded spoonfuls of chili powder to 2/3 litre of dry beans [soaked up overnight to well over a litre]. However, chili powder varies in “heat” and you may have to do a bit of trial and error to find how much of the kind you have fits with your personal tastes. (As usual, err on the “light” side to start—put in less chili powder rather than more. You can add more later; you can’t subtract it once it dissolves.) I add one slightly rounded teaspoonful each of cumin and regular paprika [both as dry powder] when i add the chili powder.

If you have celery leaves and trimmings, or liveche [Levisticum officinale, “lovage” in English] add that, preferably before heating. (Dried celery seed would also provide about the same flavour. It’s optional; i grow liveche and believe it improves chili, chowders, and many soups and sauces.) Add some of the chives when cooking is at least half done, if you use them; and some should go in while the beans are heating if you don’t brown and add some onion. Fried onions should be added as soon as they are lightly browned.

As the beans come to a boil, they will tend to foam a little (like pintos, meaning much less than peas or black beans do.) Stirring the pot will help to work down the foam. This is something to watch and be ready for, when cooking any legumes from scratch.

How much salt to add is to some extent, “a matter of taste.” The dietary advice seems to be quite strongly, these days “add little, if any.” I add salt “by eye”, and when i do taste commercial foods, they tend to taste saltier than what i cook at home—so i figure what i add counts as “little.” And to repeat what’s become a frequent theme: You can add more later; you can’t subtract it once it dissolves.

After half an hour to an hour of simmering, when the beans are just starting to soften but aren’t soft enough to call fully cooked, add half a 28 ounce [790-800 ml] can of crushed tomatoes. Diced tomatoes will do if they have at least a half hour to cook. Fresh tomatoes will of course “do”, and in my opinion make better chili—but they should go in early enough to cook an hour, with the beans and seasonings. Over an hour won’t hurt.

To measure in fresh tomatoes, i keep a washed, empty can handy, and fill it at least half full. There’s air space between the tomatoes if you don’t chop them really fine, so i tend to fill the can about two-thirds full if using whole or quartered tomatoes. If tomatoes are abundant in your garden, err toward more—even cooked for an hour, they’re good for you—but 400 ml = .4 litres ≈ two 8-ounce measuring cups, is enough.

Once the tomatoes are added, keep the heat to “just boiling.”

As an estimate, chili beans [red kidney beans] will take one to three hours to cook to a pleasant softness, and here’s one of the subtleties of chili: You should develop “a sense of” when the beans are just over half cooked, and then add the canned tomatoes; and when you use fresh tomatoes, they should go in when the beans have an hour or so left to cook. Another subtlety is how much water to use.

As the beans begin to soften, and you’re ready to add the tomatoes, take out a bean or two and a little liquid, set it on the stove top to cool, and then taste. (I keep a jar lid or a tiny saucer near the back of the stove top as a “spoon rest”.) If it seems to you there should be more chili powder, celery-liveche, or chive, add more now; but if in doubt, don’t. Some seasonings seem to gain strength with time.

Chili probably counts as the most hearty of all the legume “dishes”. Like black and pinto beans, it can even be mixed with plain boiled rice or barley, and will give the grain enough flavour to make a decent tasting dish—but i’d regard that as something to do if you’re in a big rush.

Chili-sin-carne, like black and pinto beans and even more-so, can be good eaten cold, with bread, cornbread, tortillas… even popcorn or “corn chips”. If you have more corn on the cob than usual, you can cook plenty and let that be the grain with your chili. (Grain and legumes, remember, combine to make the protein in each, more valuable to your body than it would be eaten alone.)

When you can reliably make good chili, it’s a relatively inexpensive thing to contribute to a picnic or a potluck. If it’s meatless, that’s an extra benefit anywhere and anytime there are some vegetarians coming to the event (and if you expect to have vegetarians eating your chili, then brown those onions in canola or other vegetable oil, not beef fat.) With reliably good chili, coffee, pea soup and-or pintos with oregano and chili powder, salsa-picante, and fish poached in salsa, plus the basic skills to cook grain and pasta and cabbage, and make a few salads, you could start to hear people call you “a good cook.”

Come autumn, when the oven warming the kitchen is welcome rather than unpleasant, will be a better time to write about making bread. Homemade bread is not very easy, but neither is it very difficult. You can bake two or more loaves of fresh bread, a beef roast, and a couple of potatoes, all-at-once, and have a special meal with de-luxe leftovers to add to your repertoire.

This is one of the best times in history for a man to take up cooking: Many skills that once were known far and wide, are now relatively rare because of city lifestyles and “convenience foods.” They are as easy to learn as ever, and stainless steel especially, plus some special ceramics and plastics, have made kitchen equipment easier to use and clean. “Convenience foods” are starting to get expensive, and “fast food” is no longer cheap. Becoming a good cook is as possible as ever, and a little easier—while the respect it earns you, and the money it saves you, are greater than a decade, or a few decades, ago.

The same basic facts of “social change”, by the way, apply to gardening. Having the food you eat grown as well as cooked1 by your own hands, saves you money, increases your security, and earns you respect. When i was a boy, gardening and cooking were things i learned from my grandparents, and my Dad, more than from my mother (and i learned other practical food skills, including clam digging from Granps and fishing from Dad)—and y’know, i respected them more for that.

There’s a folklore, these days, about men who can make good bread having wisdom and discipline, which i might elaborate a little when i write about making bread. To a smaller extent, it applies to making things like chili, sausage, and smoked fish… and it might even be true. Methinks the time and practical study involved in making chili, and to some extent in all good cooking and gardening (and fishing, indeed most skilled manual trades) are well spent.

That’s why this post is longer than might be absolutely necessary. Good cooking, good skilled manual work, are part of making good, the human condition. Some skilled manual work, “heavier” than most cooking, is part, arguably the most important part, of our claim to respect for simply being decent men. Chili, being a hearty and stereotypically masculine food, belongs in your repertoire, and when you’ve mastered its difficulties, along with a half dozen or more different foods—call yourself a man who can cook, and others will agree.


* sin is Spanish for without; and carne is Spanish for meat—so logically enough, sin-carne means “without meat.”

1. .. as the Carrot-Raisin Salad example shows, cooking isn’t always a matter of heat, though usually it is.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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