Yesterday I walked* to the Italian Star Deli to pick up a sandwich and some dried porcinis** for my tomato sauce. On my way out, having also picked up some tuna fillets and kippers, cans of romano and white kidney beans, lamb sausage and a jar of salsa from Mexico - damn that deli - the guy at the till spotted the cane and asked me how I was doing. I told him briefly about my back surgery and my recovery.
— You know you're feeling better, he said, when you're cooking again.
Well, damn straight. He also pointed out that my recovery would be much more difficult if I were old, or morbidly obese, or made of titanium prosthetics. Wait, he didn't mention the prosthetics. And now that I think about it, my recovery would go way better if my torso were adorned with super-light diamond-hard prosthetic limbs. But I'm getting off-topic.
To celebrate my return to cooking form, here's a recipe. I adapted it from the Red Beans with Meat recipe in Mark Bittman's awesome How To Cook Everything. It is almost but not quite for vegetarians (I've included some alternate ideas for a vegetarian version). If you make it, you will be a better person for the experience. Plus you may not want to read my recipes again, because they are maddeningly imprecise and overstuffed. But anyway.
The Beans of Palinode
1 19oz can of black beans - You may want to choose your bean style for this. Maybe you like white or red kidney beans. Maybe you're all over the black-eyed peas (which I only recently discovered were beans - serves me right for thinking that peas had eyes). I like black beans for this recipe, because black beans mesh nicely with my active lifestyle and modern tastes. And they're black, which makes them mysterious.
some stock (optional) - That's right, some stock. 1/2 cup should do, or just use a small chunk of a cube, or a 1/4 teaspoon of powdered stuff. Chicken, mushroom, vegetable, beef, whatever. Homemade, bouillon - I leave it up to you. I've worked too hard to become somebody's stock nanny. Do I look like a stock nanny to you? I don't know what I'm talking about.
1/2 pound good sausage - If you go to the supermarket and pick up some pale-ass strips of breakfast sausage for this recipe, you have failed. Go to a butcher's shop or a deli and find some good, locally made sausage. I recommend spicy Italian or Cajun for this recipe. The level of heat in the sausage will determine the spiciness of the overall dish, so go according to your tolerance. I like food that makes me sweat and cry because extreme spiciness is a middle-class substitute for labour and endurance, but you may prefer meals that allow you to keep your composure.
1 large onion, chopped
2 bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped - The peppers are an important element of the texture of this dish, so don't chop finely or in thin strips. You want little squares of sweet pepper. As for colour, I prefer one yellow and one orange, but if you've got green and red peppers kicking around, be my guest. And if you're my guest, I'll be doing the cooking.
1 tablespoon minced garlic - Oh yes, you will reek of garlic the next day.
4 or 5 sprigs of thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme - That sounds like a lot of thyme. And it is, especially if you're using the dried stuff. You'll throw it in and the smell of thyme will smack into your nostrils and you'll think you've ruined the dish. Don't panic. The flavour will blend nicely with everything else. And use the fresh stuff if it's available.
2 bay leaves - These are the most lacerating foodstuffs I have ever known. I'd like to go back in time and witness the first attempts to cook with these things. There was probably blood and tongue tips everywhere.
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice - I never have allspice around, so I substitute a blend of equal parts nutmeg, ground cloves, cinnamon and black pepper. I like grinding up the cloves in a mortar and pestle, because hey - free clove smell.
1 1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes - Drain if you like. I recommend cooking off the extra liquid if you don't drain them, because this dish is one goopy mofo.
salt and pepper to taste
minced fresh parsley or cilantro for garnish - Schmutzie hates parsley more than anything else, except for cilantro, so I've never bothered with this step. But if you like parsley or cilantro, then this can't hurt.
hot sauce if you want
1. Place the sausage in a large skillet and turn the heat to medium. Cook, turning occasionally and pricking the sausage a few times (heh heh) to release the fat (also, heh heh, but only because I like to scream out "Release the fat!" when I'm making this). When the sausage is nicely browned, remove it. Don't worry if the sausage is cooked through. Cut it into small chunks.
2. Cook the onion, pepper and garlic in the sausage fat, stirring frequently, until the pepper is softened, about 10 minutes. Remove. Return the chunks of sausage to the skillet and cook, turning occasionally, until the sausages are browned all over. Return the vegetables to the pan, along with thyme, bay leaves, allspice and tomatoes. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes break up (10-15 minutes).
3. Combine the beans and the stock (optional) in a small pot and heat on medium-low, stirring occasionally until the beans are hot and slightly tender. Most canned beans will be soft right out of the can, but black beans are often a bit chewy. It is not fun to encounter chewy little beans in every mouthful. Stir the sausage and vegetable mixture while the beans heat up.
4. Throw the beans into the skillet with the sausage and vegetable mixture and continue to cook at medium-low until moisture (tomato juice, bean juice, ingredient juice) is reduced. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaves, because they turn into little whirring blades of death in your mouth. You may also want to pick out the thyme sprigs. Stop cooking. Eat. Use hot sauce if desired. Have it with rice if you're a rice-having sort.
If you've done it right (by which I mean, the way I like it) you'll have a dish where the beans and onions provide a basic mortar to hold together the peppers and sausage. Ideally you should be able to build a model of Devil's Tower at the table out of this meal (don't forget to say 'This means something' and then start weeping uncontrollably), but that's the ideal. The reality is, the sausage chunks ruin its architectural qualities.
For a vegetarian option, double the amount of onion. Cook vegetables and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until softened. Add chili powder to taste when you put in the bay leaves, allspice and thyme. Use 2 cups chopped tomatoes. Use mushroom or vegetable stock with the beans. Alternately, you could just crawl into a twenty-pound bag of textured vegetable protein and go crazy.
By the way, I'm a big fan of eating dishes cold the next day. Take it from me - this dish is horrendous served cold. I've tried twice now and it made me sad. I'll do it again, but that doesn't mean you should. Take a minute to heat the stuff up.
*'Yesterday I walked' is an incredibly important and liberating phrase for me. After months of being unable to walk further than half a city block, I love being able to lay claim to a stroll.
**Usually I take a moment to read up on an ingredient before I go out and buy it. Not so for the porcinis. I picked up a one-eighth ounce bag for three dollars. When I came home I looked in How To Cook Everything, and he had the following to say: "Buy from a reputable dealer in quantities of at least an ounce at a time; the small packages of one-eighth ounce for three dollars are among the world's greatest rip-offs". Pwnd.