Diptych of Joe Yonan and his cookbook "Cool Beans"
Credit: From Left to Right: Aubrie Pick; Sarah Crowley

Joe Yonan Wants You to Start Making a Pot of Beans Every Week

updated Sep 29, 2020
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When California went into lockdown, I noticed it right away: In addition to some of my frozen food favorites (broccoli) and baking essentials (flour), my grocery store’s normally plentiful selection of beans was completely wiped out. In a panic, I ordered dried beans from Rancho Gordo — varieties I had never heard of before, like vaquero, yellow eye, and flageolet beans. I had no idea what I was going to do with this newfound treasure, but it felt like a safety blanket. After all, beans are affordable, nutritious, and versatile in the kitchen — and having a can or two in your pantry unlocks a world of possibilities.

Before legumes became a scarce commodity, Joe Yonan, the food and dining editor of the Washington Post, came out with what would become one of 2020’s most important cookbooks: Cool Beans. With 125 recipes, Yonan shows how beans are used in a variety of different cuisines from Mexico City, to Spain, to the many restaurants in Washington, D.C. It’s really a cookbook for anyone who has ever picked up a random assortment of beans at the grocery store (ahem, all of us), and wanted to make something other than chili —although, Yonan has a recipe for that, too. Those bags of beans I didn’t know what to do with? I suddenly had a lot of ideas.

Cool Beans was an obvious pick for Kitchn’s Cookbook Club for this year, and as the official start to fall, September felt like the best time. So to wrap up this month, I talked to Yonan about the many ways to flavor a pot of beans, the secret to his black bean brownies, and which bean he thinks best represents Ina Garten (you know, if he had to choose).

You came out with a cookbook about beans in February. Beans were already gaining in popularity, but with the pandemic they’ve really exploded. How has the conversation around your book changed?
When the book came out I felt like I had hit this bean moment. Eater did that big piece on everybody cooking beans now, and Steve Sando from Rancho Gordo had been talking about an increase in sales. Then there was the Instant Pot people, and the fact that there’s more of an interest in eating plant-based. I was feeling really great about it, and the sales were good.

The pandemic just extended the conversation around the book. A lot of people associate beans with soups and stews, and they associate that with cooler weather. So, coming into spring and summer produce, I think it’s possible the conversation about beans might have fallen off a little more quickly. Instead, it turned into beans as this hero of our pantry, which of course is the fabulous thing that I love about them. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re affordable.

Would I trade a global pandemic for the continued conversation around my book? Yes, Arie. Yes I would. But it’s been really gratifying to feel like I have something to offer people who are really trying to figure out what the hell to do in their kitchen.

And where do beans go from here? What’s the next frontier for beans?
One of the biggest areas of growth that I’ve seen in supermarkets for beans have been as snack foods. All the spiced chickpeas — I have a recipe for that in my book. And fava beans. I’ve also seen companies do riffs on the old Italian snack of pickled lupini beans.

I also hope that after this is all done (and it will be done, right?), people will be in the habit of making a pot of beans every week. Make a pot of beans every week, know how to store them in their liquid, and use them for all sorts of quick dishes on any given weeknight. Because once we’re not working from home, we’re going to be back to depending on having things around in our fridge that are really easy for us to go to that don’t require a lot of cooking every night.

Has there been a bean that you’ve cooked more than other in the last six months?
Well, I’m very enamored of the cranberry bean. It has become more of a staple in my kitchen than it had before. I just love the creaminess of it, and the plumpness of it. I just think it’s a really great bean.

All the recipes in this book are plant-based, which means you’re obviously not using ham hock to flavor your beans. What plant-based ingredients do you use to flavor a pot of beans instead?
If I’m making a pot of beans every week and using them in different recipes, I want to leave them as versatile as possible. So I’m pretty minimal: It’s onion and garlic and bay leaf. But then from the basic pot, I really love cumin — it really brings out the depth and nuttiness of beans. There was a time in Texas when I was first cooking for myself, that I’m not sure I would’ve known what I was tasting if I tasted beans that did not have cumin in them.

I’m also a huge fan of smoked paprika; it adds that smoky flavor, the same kind of thing that people are going for when they put ham hocks in their pot. I’ve also found that ground cinnamon with beans is pretty magical; it adds that little hint of warmth. I also like smoked salt with beans. And certainly Indian spices like garam masala are great. And then all the chilies. I don’t think I’ve ever met a chili pepper that didn’t go well with beans. There’s something about beans that takes the spice really well.

Credit: Aubrie Pick
Homesteader’s New England Baked Beans

So, are you telling me I could cook any kind of bean on the stove with some totally random ingredients and it would be good? Or is there some rule for playing around with that.
Here’s the thing about beans that I think is so fascinating: They have their differences (they certainly look different, there are different sizes, they have different textures), but the difference in flavor isn’t huge. It’s not like you get a bean that tastes like oranges and you get another bean that tastes like broccoli.

I could pick out a black bean from a lineup. I could pick out a chickpea from a lineup while blindfolded. And nothing really tastes like a black-eyed pea. But I think you can also widely substitute them all. You can cook a black-eyed pea the way that you would cook black beans with Mexican flavors, and add them to tacos, and they would be delicious. I’ve made tacos with cannellini beans, too. Just because they’re traditionally associated with Italian cooking doesn’t mean that they taste bad if you add chilies and garlic to them.

So, I think they’re widely interchangeable. But the one thing that I would say is a bad idea — and I know this goes against all of those three-bean mixes out there — is to mix beans when you cook them.

Wait, really?
For the most part, I don’t like mixing beans because I feel like they usually don’t cook at the same time. I think I have a couple of recipes that mix beans — like the chili recipe in the book. But that’s just because you’re cooking it for so long that the beans turn to mush, which is what you want. But other than that, I don’t mix chickpeas from different sources or beans with different sources together, because I don’t know how old they are — which means they’ll cook at different times.

Is there a better time to use canned beans than dried beans, and vice versa, or is it really just a convenience factor?
There’s definitely the convenience factor, but there are some times when I find it’s better to use canned — like when I’m making roasted chickpeas. You want to get them crispy, which means you’re trying to drive out as much of that moisture as possible, so it doesn’t make sense to spend all that time putting moisture in.

And when the broth isn’t required, I think it could go either way. So, in salads or in any situation where you’re going to be draining and rinsing the beans anyway. Do I think that really high-quality beans that you cooked well from dried taste better than canned beans? Yes. Although I think canned beans are pretty great, I have to say.

What are some of the ways you use bean broth? And is there a bean that gives you the most flavorful pot liquor?
Black beans, but only if you don’t soak them. When you soak them, it takes out some flavor, and certainly some color. When you don’t soak the beans they’re inky black and the broth is super, super flavorful. One of the things I like to do — and I learned this from a Mexican chef in D.C. — is, if I’m having a dinner party I just adjust the seasoning and serve the liquid as a small starter soup. And it’s delicious. I also use bean broth to thicken or add body to sauces the same way that you use pasta water, because beans are so starchy.

And I should also say, this is really more true of beans that you’re cooking on the stovetop than the beans that you’re cooking in a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot. When I use a pressure cooker, I always cook down the liquid. Without the evaporation, the broth is not nearly as tasty from a pressure cooker as it is on the stove op.

The most magical thing that the liquid does, however, is for storage. I’ve tested how long beans in the refrigerator last if you store them in their own liquid versus draining them and storing them. If you drain them you start seeing tiny little white dots of mold sometimes within three or four days, but in their own liquid, I always get a week out of them. And then for freezing, it’s the same thing — it protects them from any kind of frostbite. When you thaw them, you honestly can’t even tell that they were frozen.

Credit: Aubrie Pick
Garlicky Great Northern Beans and Broccoli Rabe over Toast

I want to talk to you about the red bean brownies you have in the book. I was very anti black bean brownie, until recently when I had one that was … so good. Is there a reason why some taste less bean-y than others? What’s your secret?
When I first noticed black bean brownies, it was a diet recipe, but also a hack. If I’m remembering correctly, the recipe was based on a box of brownie mix, and a can of black beans that you didn’t drain or rinse, and that was the substitute for the oil and maybe the eggs.

Which just sounds … so bad.
They were so awful. But when I made them myself, I treated it like a real brownie. So, it wasn’t trying to be oil-free or fat-free. I was making great brownies, but putting black beans in them, and that was a lot better.

One of the interesting things to me about beans in desserts is that beans not only have protein, but they can also be starchy. I think one of the reasons that some of those old recipes might not have worked very well is that people didn’t reduce the other starch in recipe. They didn’t take the flour down. And so I wanted to strike a better balance.

I also thought it would be fun to play with red beans in this recipe because they tend toward sweetness and they have a little nuttiness to them. They’re used so often in Asian sweets. I also played a little bit more with the red idea by adding rose water and rose petals, and turned it a little Middle Eastern. The brownies are really good — it’s a fudgier brownie, not cakier.

I can’t wait to make them! So, to finish up the interview, we’re going to play a super short game. I’m going to name a handful of celebrities, and you’re going to tell me which bean best represents them. Don’t overthink it.

All right, so Ina Garten, what bean would she be?
I feel like Ina Garten would be the cannellini bean. Just versatile, and knows how to make anything taste good.

Got it. Michelle Obama?
Oh, she’s so great. I’m going to say the gigante bean, which is this huge Greek bean, and it’s super creamy and meaty, and it can really star. It lights the room, just like Michelle.

Guy Fieri.
Let’s see. Guy Fieri. I’m going to say he’s a navy bean — maybe just because I like the idea of him in a sailor suit.

That’s a good answer. All right: Oprah.
Oprah. Well, she’s powerful. So, maybe I’m going to give her my favorite bean. Maybe Oprah is the cranberry bean.

Wow. That’s special.
Because she’s special, and it’s my favorite.

Last one: Dr. Fauci.
The corona bean? It seems hard to resist, doesn’t it?

Thanks so much for talking with us, Joe! You can buy his new cookbook, Cool Beans, here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.