Having suddenly realised the end is nigh, or at least that there is a risk all the food in our cupboards might not get eaten before the end of July, I was moved to take out a bag of soja nera and apply it to a recipe for Black Bean Soup. Anything with oranges in it sounds good to me, happy here in orange heaven. And I am becoming well known for my interminable soup making, I think.
So I dumped the beans in a pot full of water and soaked them for about 8 hours as is my custom. Then I drained them and put them in another pot of water and cooked them for about two hours. They were cooked, but they weren’t all that soft, so I cooked them a while longer. And another while. And another. Four and a half hours later they were still stubbornly al dente. I sent a couple of electronic cries for help into the ether. I got sympathy and solidarity by return.
I know I’ve cooked black beans to a comforting semi-sludgy texture before, but I think I’ve also had this problem before. And clearly, so have other people. Something in my memory said it’s a problem to cook them with salt, it keeps them from mushing up, but I hadn’t added any salt; I wondered if it might be the weird mineral content of Parma’s water (Acqua di Sulfur more than Acqua di Parma most days). What should I do? I toyed with the idea of draining the beans and cooking them a while longer in some distilled water, but I wondered if their structure had already been changed irreversibly. So I left them sulking overnight in their cooking water.
In the morning they were still firm and shapely. I turned to Harold McGee, in one of my classmates’ favoured texts, On Food & Cooking, and there was the answer! He describes a condition called Persistently Hard Beans, in which they can take an abnormally long time to soften or never do. He says there are two possible reasons: in one, caused by growing conditions on the farm (high temperature, high humidity and low water supply), the outer seed coat gets very hard, preventing water from moving into the interior. The other is a fault from storage: beans that were normal when harvested undergo a structural change if stored for long periods in warm temperatures and high humidity – exactly Parma’s summer climate.
There is no cure for either condition, alas, but he says you can avoid the first by making sure you pick through and discard the smallest beans. In the second case you cannot identify the culprits until you have tried to cook them. After that, the unsoftened beans will be (obviously) smaller than their properly hydrated companions and you can pick them out if you have the time and patience.
Or you can serve them on rice to really hungry guests and hope nobody notices, for la fame muta le fave in mandorle (hunger makes hard beans sweet). And if you serve enough wine with them you will know that il vino è poesia in bottiglia (wine is bottled poetry). And by the end of the evening when you all look like a sack of old beans, you can all beam at one another and observe gli amici sono come il vino: migliorano con l’età (friends, like wine, get better with age). Amen to that.