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Revitalizing the Dried Bean

Mah'moud was a big man — about 6 feet 3 inches and 250 pounds — so people noticed when he walked down the street leading a turkey by a string around its neck. He was on his way to the backyard of our house in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, where I lived the year I turned 18 and where he worked as our cook.

An excellent French-trained chef, Mah'moud would slaughter and dress the turkey before roasting it for dinner. While the bird was delicious, it was what he did with the leftovers that I loved best. He made stock from the carcass and lentil soup from the stock. In the process, he made me a believer in dried beans.

Despite being born and raised in the South, where dried legumes are a staple, I'd never been a fan. They were often served as the main dish at the school cafeteria and were a grayish-brown, lumpy mixture, devoid of both color and flavor and with the texture of library paste.

Even my mother's Senate bean soup, red beans and rice, and the black-eyed peas Southerners eat on New Year's Day for good luck could not diminish my distaste for dried and reconstituted legumes. It took an Egyptian cook to do that.

Mah'moud cooked the beans in a stock, and in retrospect I suppose he simmered them long, low and slow. Plus it turns out turkey and lentils have a natural affinity, at least according to my taste buds, so a turkey stock was the perfect base flavoring.

Mah'moud also introduced me to hummus bi tahini using dried chickpeas he soaked all night and to which he added hand-ground sesame paste — a dish I quickly came to adore and years later to master. In fact, this Egyptian figured out how to make a great pot of chili when we ran out of the packaged chili mix we'd brought from the United States. And he did it with dried beans.

The summer after I left Egypt, I hitchhiked through Europe where I discovered cassoulet, an extraordinary peasant dish from the Languedoc region of France. I was being treated to lunch by my ride at the time, American journalists who insisted I have cassoulet.

Once again, I was taken by the dried beans. Cassoulet is built around small white beans cooked just past al dente: They're silky smooth but retain a noticeable bite. The beans are mixed with chunks of sausage, duck and pork, and herbs such as rosemary and thyme.

Like so many peasant dishes, this one has been "discovered" and elevated to fancy bistro fare. In the process, it has evolved from a simple bean soup or stew using whatever is in the larder to a much more complex, multi-day affair sometimes requiring hard-to-find ingredients such as saucisson de Toulouse or rabbit.

The classic cassoulet is made of white beans, and preserved and fresh meats. It includes duck or goose confit (duck or goose slowly poached in fat, which preserves the meat so it can be kept for a time without refrigeration), sausage (another way of preserving meat) and fresh meat, most commonly pork or mutton.

Like most bean dishes, cassoulet tastes better on its second day, after the flavors have time to meld.

After all this, I might still not describe myself as a bean-lover. Since that year in Egypt, however, I've continued to experiment with beans. I've learned that the key to good beans is adding bold, assertive flavors; gentle long cooking to produce a tender result; and a good dose of fat to improve the mouth-feel. Dried beans are a great source of protein and fiber and they're dirt cheap. I am indebted to Mah'moud.

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Kevin Weeks
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