Anywhere in the world that beans are cooked, beans are cooked with pork.
There are classic dishes with fancy names for this combination, like Brazilian feijoada and French cassoulet. In North America we simply call it pork and beans. In many cases, it's just called beans, because it goes without saying that they were cooked with pork, as many frustrated vegetarians will attest.
Many of these recipes come from the lower classes, where cheap, protein-rich legumes have long been used to extend meager rations of low-grade meat. You never know what kind of animal parts you might find in feijoada. In addition to various unnamed bits, bones make a big difference too, especially if they have marrow, and bits of meat and cartilage attached. Cooking them with beans, in lots of water, is a means with which to consume these difficult-to-use animal parts, and extract their tightly held nutrients.
The ability of this dish to stretch protein makes it an increasingly appropriate recipe for providing sufficient daily protein to a growing population. It takes much more land, water and other resources to produce animal protein than bean protein. So using beans to help utilize the bits and bones is a winning recipe in every respect, not just in terms of flavor.
I used to eat a lot of feijoada, and have long appreciated the impact of pork fat on refried beans. But I was re-inspired as to the possibilities of this combination recently at a German sausage store, where the display case was filled with a random assortment of deli meats and sausage ends. For $2.50 a pound, I could buy the misshapen extremities of what once were prosciutto hams, salamis, smoked pork belly and, my favorite, a smoked, bone-in pork loin called kasseler.
One day on a whim I bought the whole tray's worth of pieces, and wondered out loud what I would do with them.
"Puut zem in ay pot of beans," suggested the butcher.
I did, with pinto beans, and the result was so good I've been raiding the German butcher's ends tray ever since.
My pintos and pork is a simple, subtle, silky smooth dish that's sublimely satisfying. It's not like the over-spiced and too busy pot of mediocrity known as bean chili. The only spices I use are salt, garlic and some kind of hot pepper. There is no cumin, oregano, coriander or bay leaves. There are no tomatoes or corn. There is not some kind of multi-bean medley. I do use a mirepoix of carrot, celery and onion—in chunks so large they can easily be removed. The meat is not ground, but floats around in large chunks that disintegrate around the edges.
- photo by Ari LeVaux
As good as the dish is, I found myself wondering if the pork is truly essential, or if some other type of meat would suffice. So I made a batch with beef soup bones. I oven-roasted them, for a little charred smokiness, and proceeded to make a splendid pot of beans in my electric pressure cooker.
The marrow, fat and melted cartilage from the beef bones added a lot of creamy richness to the beans, on par with what the pork does. I thought I had proven that pork is not necessary, but then I added some pork ends from the German butcher and pressure-cooked it for another 45 minutes. And the beans were clearly better.
So while pork is the indisputable winner, there are alternatives. Once you've secured your meat of choice, follow this step-by-step recipe:
2 cups dried pinto beans
1 lb bones and meat
1 large onion, cut in quarters
3 carrots, cut in inch-tall rounds
4 celery stalks, cut into two-inch sections
How to make it:
Soak beans for at least two hours, ideally overnight. Change water and rinse beans after soaking. While the beans are soaking, roast the bones under the broiler, turning often, until they are uniformly browned but not burned. Add all ingredients except salt and garlic powder to a pot or pressure cooker, along with at least four quarts of water. Cook 4-6 hours on stovetop, or 1-2 hours in pressure cooker, until beans are tender. Season with salt and garlic powder. Serve as a soup, or alongside rice—jasmine rice adds a wonderful aromatic counterpart. Doctor with hot sauce or chile as necessary.