You hear it all of the time in interviews with cooks, “My dishes are inspired by walking through the market and seeing what looks good.” In a recent (and great) essay, St. Fergus asks “what were they cooking before? Food not in season and from very far away? Maybe if this had been pointed out it would have opened our eyes. Do you really have to say this every time you cook?” and then he goes on the answer his own question by saying “Sadly you do, as the people who provide most of our food are the mighty supermarkets who feel it is their job to sell us strawberries in winter and organic avocados from Peru, all in the name of the illusion of abundance. When it’s a commodity in their eyes, not a good lunch, they lose all sense of where the pleasure in food comes from. My local supermarket sells what I think of as behind-the-counter food: much like the contents of the tawdrier shelves at the newsagent, it shouldn’t be on display. They stock nothing that hasn’t been tampered with: butter that spreads straight from the fridge, bacon that goes crisp almost automatically, and everything – everything – has 99 per cent less fat.”
St. Fergus goes on to discuss common sense cooking and his realization of how common sense does not equate to boring. As one of my favorite local cooks said recently, “Simple isn’t easy” and how one of his best lessons was to start taking things away from a dish to make it better. I have been trying more and more lately to keep things simple, not always being able to hold back, but to do my best to follow that guideline.
Even before reading this essay, I had my walking-through-the-market inspiration moment. Only this was not some fancy farmer’s market with $12 lilacs and people wearing rain boots that had never seen mud. It was in the bulk section of the grocery. My grocery just revamped their bulk section and, as I do my best to buy dried beans, oats, and nuts/seeds in bulk, I was walking up and down looking at all of the product. When I spotted a bin with medium sized white beans labelled “marrow beans”, there was a spark.
In a kind of after-the-fact complete the circle moment, St. Fergus’s best known dish, in the US at least, thanks to Bourdain, is his roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. It is a simple dish that delivers the maximum amount of hedonism per gram of consumption. The rich marrow spread on toast with parsley and shallots dressed with acidic lemon juice. I have enjoyed marrow a number of ways from simple to less simple, but when I saw marrow beans, I wondered how adding bone marrow to the cooking medium would improve beans. The silliness that followed would likely be frowned up on by food curmudgeons, but it was the next logical step.
As a bean snob and a mangiafagioli, I have favorites that I tend to rely on. My absolute favorites, found while in Charleston, are Sea Island Red Peas from Anson Mills. Cooked in ham stock, they count as one of my favorite foods. Then there are the black beans from Three Sisters garden. Finally, I have a steady rotation of legume miscellany (lima, fave, ceci). I have been open to adding new beans to the rotation and simply the name of these beans drove me to the scoop. When I arrived home, I did a little research that revealed that the marrow bean had a creamy texture and a meaty flavor. It became clear why the name of the bean referred to marrow.
After soaking the beans, I cooked them with garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, and the crosscut bone from a nice piece of Q7 beef shin. The flesh from the shin went into a deep, dark coffee-chili braise, but the bone was reserved for the beans – take it as robbing Peter to pay Paul – but hell not every dish can have a supplement of marrow. After hours of sitting on a low flame, the beans were cooked and the marrow had reduced, darkened, and freed itself from the bone. There were beautiful capsules of fat from the beef and marrow dotting the surface of the cooking medium which has now transitioned from water to deliciously viscous bean stock.
As an aside, as part of the download of information and insight that I gained by reading the amazing “An Everlasting Meal”, count the tips of bean cookery and use as the best of them. Letting the beans rest overnight in their stock improves both the bean and the stock immeasurably, allowing the stock and bean to reach an equilibrium where both are at their peak. I have taken to cooking the beans, resting them, then serving the beans with a slotted spoon, reserving the stock for a post-run treat.
In either regard, the day after cooking the beans, I scooped them into a warm bowl and tasted them. True to the description, the texture was incredibly creamy. I did not necessarily taste bacon, but the body and richness was certainly meaty in nature.
An idea came to me when the marrow slipped from the bone as I removed it from the rested beans. It is silly, but it is far from a leap. It was rooted in an English classic peasant dish, beans on toast, and a riff on the iconic roasted bone marrow on toast with parsley salad. I had a cleaned out roasted marrow bone. I had a pot of creamy marrow beans. I had cooked bone marrow. Within minutes, I had pureed the beans, garlic, and marrow into a sort of English hummus, spooned the mixture into the hollow bone, toasted a little bread and whipped up a little salad of roasted peanuts, sorrel, ramps, and preserved lemons.
It looked just like the roasted bone marrow dish that I have made a few times. The beans, creamy and unctuous like marrow, spooned onto the toast with the salad was not completely mindbendingly rich as whole marrow, but had similar textures and flavors without the risk of getting gout by simply looking at it. It was beans on toast and the beans were delicious. It was simple, with the only fussiness being the vessel for the beans, but it was not boring. It just made sense.