Finding Self-Reliance in a Pot of Dried Beans

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In 2009, veteran food writer Robin Mather lost her job and her marriage within the span of a week. She retreat­ed to a small lakeside cottage in her native Michigan where she experienced a three-day blizzard that tested her resourcefulness.
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The comfort of a woodstove’s gentle heat allowed the author, Robin Mather, to continue to cook after a power outage during a three-day blizzard.
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Michigan is second only to North Dakota in dried bean production, av­eraging 14 percent of the country’s total production from 2006 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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"The Feast Nearby" is a collection of essays and recipes from a year of eating locally by Robin Mather. She is now senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

A major storm blew through this week, with sleety rain starting Monday and heavy snow starting Tuesday night. We had snow on the ground, but it hadn’t come all at once. It would be the first big storm for the chickens, and I was worried about them.

Since the old furnace started acting up last spring, I had been fretting about whether the little woodstove that my friend John helped install would keep the house warm and safe should the furnace fail. Was it big enough to heat the house? Would its warmth be enough to keep the pipes from freezing? The coming storm would test its mettle as well as my own.

I spent Tuesday carrying in armload after armload of wood, until the floor beneath the big picture window in the living room was stacked sill-high from one end to the other with wood of all sizes. Boon the standard poodle and Guffy the cat kept me company at the woodpile, the dog alert for the intruders he apparently feared may arrive at any moment, the kitten capering in snow so deep it nearly covered him. They watched with curiosity as I filled the bird feeders because I knew that the small wild things, too, counted on me for sustenance against the storm.

When I closed the kitchen door for the final time late Tuesday afternoon, my African grey parrot, Pippin, hanging upside down on his spiral of rope suspended from the kitchen ceiling, said, “You stay!” “Gladly,” I said, leaning in to plant a kiss on his beak. “I’m not going anywhere now.”

The snow began Tuesday evening just as night fell, and the last thing I did before turning in was put a couple of cups of dried beans to soak.

When I checked on the chickens before bed, their water was unfrozen. I scattered some scratch grains on their bedding to give them something to think about while they were cooped, gave them fresh water and filled their feeder. The eggs I plucked from the nest boxes were still warm when I left the chickens for the night.

When I woke Wednesday morning, the snow lay thick and deep on the ground, and it was easy to see that it would snow heavily all day long. The storm raged outside, the wind whipping snow past my windows so furiously that sometimes I couldn’t see the neighbors’ houses.

Late in the morning, I put the beans on to cook. The pot of beans filled the house with a lovely aroma. When the power blinked off, just as I feared that it might, I simply moved the pot to the top of the woodstove to continue cook­ing. I settled into the little rocker beside the stove with a book until the power re­turned. A bowl of stewy beans, sided by a couple of chunks of fresh-baked bread and butter, made a fine supper on such a blustery night.

Self-Reliance in a Pot of Dried Beans

As a true daughter of Michigan, I’m a bean lover. One could argue that beans built Michigan: not only in the growing of the crops, but in their eat­ing. Michigan’s earliest settlers and the woodsmen who logged off the land saw beans on the table almost every day, sometimes at all three meals.

Michigan is second only to North Dakota in dried bean production, av­eraging 14 percent of the country’s total production from 2006 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While most of the Wolverine State’s crop is black beans and navy beans, Michigan farmers also grow cranberry, kidney, small red and pinto beans. In fact, many years ago, a New Orleans chef told me there would be no red beans and rice — one of the Big Easy’s iconic dishes — without Michigan’s small red beans.

My mom loved bean soup, and from fall to spring, we had some kind of bean soup for dinner about once a week. She almost always cooked dried beans, al­though I sometimes use canned or fro­zen beans as a timesaver. Whenever I cook dried beans, I double the batch and freeze half of the beans in recipe-sized containers.

But dried beans are easy to cook and don’t even need to be soaked if you have the time to simmer them. If you choose to presoak them, either let them stand overnight in cold water, as I did, or bring them to a boil, cook covered for 10 min­utes, and then let stand for an hour off the heat.

You can also speed up the cooking of dried beans by using a pressure cooker. Be sure you follow the instructions, though; dried beans create a lot of foam in the pressure cooker, so you mustn’t overload it.

Most of the sugars in the beans that give people tummy problems — oligo­saccharides, to be scientific — vanish down the drain with the soaking water. Fiber-rich beans can also cause prob­lems for those who don’t eat a high-fiber diet. The cure for that? Eat more beans. Your digestive system will adapt quickly. If beans give you problems, it’s proof that you’re not eating enough fiber.

Cover beans while they cook if you want them to be creamy and mashable; leave them uncovered while they cook if you want them to stay whole, adding more boiling water to the beans as needed. If your water is very hard, as mine is, the beans may never get truly soft. For that reason, I usually use filtered water to cook beans. Tomatoes’ acidity helps soften beans, while salt slows their softening slightly. I generally salt toward the end of cooking time.

A pound of dried beans cooks into 6 cups, which should serve six to eight as a side dish such as baked beans, or in a salad. In soup, I usually figure 2 pounds to serve that many, because there’s little else except water to stretch the beans’ volume.

The storm blew in its fury all day Wednesday and on into Thursday. Inside the house, the woodstove pro­vided its gentle, lovely warmth for the dog, the cat, the parrot and me.

By Thursday morning, the door to the chicken coop was frozen shut, but a couple of whacks with the maul solved the problem. Inside, I found the chickens chirring happily, their water still unfrozen.

I shoveled and salted the steps, and tramped a path up the hill from house to mailbox. The activity warmed me, and it raised my mood so that I could appreciate the beauty of what the storm had wrought: Snow like lofty meringue iced the tree limbs, and the drifts had artful, wind-carved shapes.

When the storm finally passed Friday afternoon, more than 2 feet of new snow covered the foot or so on the ground, and the lake was filmed with ice for the first time this year.

The little woodstove had proven trusty and reliable, keeping all of us, as well as the pipes, snugly warm. I knew that my mind had shifted, once and for all, to the be-prepared attitude I had so long wanted to acquire.

And I knew at last, with what a friend used to call “knowledge car­ried to the heart,” that I could care for myself — and all those who depend on me — in the worst that winter had to offer, through the hardest times. My self-reliance bolstered the confidence I carried in myself.

Want a good bean recipe? Try making Robin’s favorite Frijoles de Olla recipe for yourself.

In 2009, veteran food writer Robin Mather lost her job and her marriage within the span of a week. She retreated to a small lakeside cottage in her native Michigan while she figured out what to do next. In this excerpt from her book, The Feast Nearby, she tells of a three-day blizzard that tested her resourcefulness and taught her that self-reliance breeds confidence.Find Robin on .