Elk sirloin chili with Beans

Any more, whenever I cook or even eat beans, I think of my buddy Ken Albala over at Ken Albala’s Food Rant. He doesn’t get as much traffic as all the Foodbuzz and Foodie Blogroll folks, which is a fucking shame, because he’s actually a real writer. Of actual books.

One of such books is Beans: A History.

You ever find yourself reading some Pollan and thinking to yourself, “sure, this is entertaining, but I really wish he didn’t dumb everything down for the lay audience”? Yeah, me too.

If Michael Pollan is coffee, Ken Albala is espresso. Ken is an award-winning food historian and author of such effervescent reading as Eating Right in the Renaissance; Food in Early Modern Europe; and Cooking in Europe 1250-1650. More recently though, he dabbles in what he deems to be “pop” food writing, but is, in my opinion, a meticulous examination of individual foodstuffs.

Beans is one such exploration, in which Ken chronicles the cultural and culinary significance of one of our most basic forms of sustenance, the humble legume. From the crippling classism faced by Medieval bean-eaters, to the role of toxic vetch seeds in combating famine in the 12th-century, to the bacterium that distinguishes natto from hamanatto, Beans delves into depths rivaling a thesis for its attention to detail, and for leaving no stone unturned. Beans is, in a word, thorough.

It’s also pretty fucking entertaining, although I’ll admit that the thing I like most about this book is its unflinching nerdiness. This is an entire book about the seeds of a single plant family. It’s not just for scholars and botanists, though – Ken’s enthusiasm is contagious.

Some of you are still doing your holiday shopping, and I scold you for your procrastination. However, you can satisfy the academic foodie on your list (or yourself) by picking up a copy of Beans or Ken’s latest tome, Pancake: A Global History.


Oh, hey, and speaking of beans, I made it to the store yesterday. It really wasn’t that terrible – without that nasty sumbitch Old Man East Wind, it was actually kind of pleasant, bordering on magical.

Since I knew I had to carry everything I purchased, I made very edited choices. Milk, eggs and flour are already heavy, so everything else really had to count. A couple containers of frozen juice concentrate to drink with our vodka. A bag of pink beans.

We had everything else at home, so this wouldn’t be too difficult. Catherine sent me a huge elk sirloin roast a few weeks ago (have I mentioned that I love that woman?), from which we’d eaten a couple of steaks and then refroze. I’d normally never refreeze a meat, but I was going out of town and figured it’d be better to risk freezer burn than for the whole thing to rot in my absence. Rubbed and double-bagged with the air smooshed out, it was absolutely fine rethawed, without a single indication of freezer burn.

I finely diced the elk and browned it with an onion and a few spoonfuls of homemade ancho chile powder, half spoonfuls of pimentón and garlic powder, and a good few pinches of homemade Berbere spice. I dumped in a can of tomatoes and the leftover tomato-roasted pepper soup from last week. Then I added a dribble of soy, a spoonful of gochujang and a few good pinches of MSG. Oh, don’t look at me like that – it is pure, crystalline umami. It makes everything taste really good and I’m not sensitive to it.

I let everything simmer and stew while the (presoaked) pink beans cooked in unsalted water. Never cook beans with the tomatoes or in salted water, or they’ll go tough. When the beans were tender, I drained them and added them to the pot, then added more salt and pepper to taste. While the beans were soaking up some of the good chili flave, I whipped up some cornbread.

Top with cheese, sour cream and minced shallot for best effect. I’m heading to the kitchen for some leftovers right now. Not too shabby, this “working from home” business.