Food & Drink

Why Southerners, and Just About Everyone Else, Love Beans

A new cookbook honors chickpeas, field peas, lentils, and other beans from all over the legume family tree


Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan understands legume legwork. “When I was first starting on this book, the biggest question in my head was ‘How on earth am I going to fill it with 125 recipes on beans?’” Yonan says of his new cookbook, Cool Beans. “But by the time I got going, I talked to chefs all over the world and worked up recipes from my own repertoire, and it ended up being hard to stop at just 125.”

photo: Aubrie Pick
Joe Yonan.

Yonan, who was born in Albany, Georgia, grew up in West Texas, and attended the University of Texas at Austin, shows beans’ wide geographic range, from a spicy Ethiopian red lentil dip to Italian rice salad with cannellini beans to Cuban-style orange-scented black beans. Southerners will find plenty of touchstones in his book, including a spin on pralines that employs roasted chickpeas instead of pecans and a red beans and rice recipe Yonan  learned from Emily and Alon Shaya of the New Orleans restaurant Saba. He pays homage to the late Virginia-raised chef Edna Lewis in a recipe for “Southern Baked Beans,” and notes that “our exclusive association of baked beans with New England is flat-out wrong…every bean-growing culture seems to have at least one treatment for cooking them slowly, because the results are always so wonderful.” He, like Lewis, recommends serving slow-cooked beans alongside a green salad and crusty bread. 

photo: Aubrie Pick
Roasted tomato and pepper soup, a recipe from Cool Beans.

A vegetarian, Yonan finds alternatives to meat for standard bean dishes, including a chili that honors his roots. “I used to be on the other side of this argument,” Yonan says. “As a proud Texas boy, I would go to the mat about beans not belonging in chili. But when I stopped eating meat, I decided to apply all of my precision and feelings about chili and treat the beans with the care I treated the meat.” After sautéing a spice blend of ancho chiles, cumin, and paprika, he stirs in red kidney and black beans. “This has the round flavors and slow-burning heat that I love,” he says.

For the last cold days of winter, Yonan shares a warming tomato-and-lady-cream-peas soup that he says tastes “like the best possible version of childhood alphabet soup.” Store-bought tomatoes are okay to use because even slightly underripe tomatoes benefit from roasting, which concentrates their flavors. “But make it when local tomatoes are at their best,” he says, “and you’ll knock your own socks off.” The bean cooking liquid adds silkiness, Yonan says, so bypass the can aisle and cook with fresh or dried lady peas.


Alphabet Soup for Grownups

Author Joe Yonan shares his recipe for savory roasted tomato and pepper soup with Southern field peas

Ingredients

  • Roasted Tomato and Pepper Soup

    • 2 pounds tomatoes, cut into large chunks

    • 2 red bell peppers, cut into large chunks

    • 6 garlic cloves

    • 1 large white or yellow onion, cut into large chunks

    • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

    • 1½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste

    • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

    • ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

    • 1½ cups dried lady cream peas (may substitute black-eyed peas or canned no-salt-added navy or cannellini beans)

    • 2 cups bean cooking liquid

    • 1 cup vegetable broth

    • ½ cup lightly packed basil leaves, chopped

    • Sherry vinegar (optional)

    • Sugar (optional)


Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. 

  2. Toss the tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and onion on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with 1 tsp. of the salt, the pepper, and red pepper flakes. Roast until the tomatoes have collapsed and are starting to brown on the edges and the bell peppers are tender, about 45 minutes.

  3. While the vegetables are roasting, cook the lady cream peas (if using canned beans, no need to cook the beans): In a large pot, combine them with enough water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, add the remaining ½ tsp. salt, and simmer, covered, until tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Drain, reserving the bean liquid. Measure out 2 cups of the bean cooking liquid and save any remaining for another use.

  4. When the vegetables have finished roasting, transfer the contents of the baking sheet to the empty soup pot and set it over medium-high heat. Stir in the bean cooking liquid and 1 cup water or broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium-low and simmer until the flavors meld, about 10 minutes. 

  5. Add the basil and use an immersion (handheld) blender to puree the soup until smooth. Stir in the lady cream peas and continue cooking over medium-low until the peas are warmed through, about 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed, along with a splash of vinegar and/or a pinch of sugar, if desired. Serve hot.