A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pinto Beans in the Slow Cooker


Because of 3 consecutive days of professional commitments this weekend, I didn't have any time to cook.  I barely had time to eat, grabbing half a bagel with whitefish salad here, a package of "Sweetheart Sushi" shared with my sweetheart there, as time permitted.

The sushi came from Whole Foods, and was a cute little package with 2 of each tiny, fishy morsel, including 2 tuna/salmon roll pieces molded into a heart shape in the middle.  WF gets a little cloying at holiday times, but I have to admit it was tasty.  Heart-shaped chocolates make some sort of romantic sense, I suppose, and I have a soft spot for Santa-shaped sugar cookies, but when we start forming raw fish into festive shapes, perhaps we have gone too far.

The weekend's activities culminated in a master class in singing I gave on Sunday morning, for which I wore the muslin Peter created for his current men's shirt sew-along.  Imagine how amazing the shirt is going to turn out when the muslin looks this good:

No, my face isn't dirty — that's my beard.  I'll try to chart its (slow) growth with pictures on this blog.
The audience was very attentive during my class.  Now I'm wondering if it was my presentation mesmerizing them, or this adorable shirt, with its kicky semaphore-flag-ish pattern.  (The shirt actually had pockets too by the time of the class.  This photo was taken a day or two earlier.)  If you're nice to me, sometime I'll show you the contrasting red/white check gingham on some of the inner surfaces — these fun details set this shirt far apart from a ready-to-wear garment.  (Thanks, Sweetheart!  I mold my fish into amorous shapes for you!)

Oh, yes.  This is a cooking blog.  It's just that there was more happening on the sewing front than the cooking front this weekend.  But I did squeeze in one kitchen project on Sunday evening, to reward myself for all the preparation I'd done for the master class.
Do you find it strange that I would reward myself by cooking up a pot of beans?  Well, maybe I'm a little eccentric, but I have a feeling that many of my readers also "relax" by getting creative in their kitchens.  It's an enjoyable diversion, to forget one's outer-world obligations and set about making something delicious out of what you find on hand in the inner, more controllable world of the kitchen.  Here's what I discovered when I scoured my fridge, freezer, and pantry:

The inspirations for today's project

The pinto beans, ham hock, and onion would form the backbone — or at least the shank bone — of my diversionary cooking project.  And I would do the main cooking in the slow cooker, so that I could try my first overnight recipe.  

Lest you think I just dumped some stuff into the slow cooker, turned the dial to ON, and went back to eating heart-shaped sea creatures on the sofa, let me assure you that I was able to turn this into a full-fledged cook-a-rama.  Of course you could cook beans in plain old water, but how much better would it be to cook them in homemade stock?

So I got out my frozen stockpile:

It looked a little meagre, even after I added those two potatoes.  (They were an unpleasant squishy texture, having frozen out on the balcony and thawed again, so I knew that they would not do in any dish in which they would actually be eaten.)  So I scouted around in the fridge to see what else I could toss in.  I found wilting basil, some pieces of cabbage core, and a few garlic cloves.  I also tossed in the outer layers and stem ends of the onion pictured above, having learned my lesson the hard way about putting raw onion directly in the slow-cooker.  Now my stockpile looked sufficient for a batch of the good stuff:

I tossed all this compost in a medium saucepan with water to cover.  Then I added a few peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, 3 dried red chillies, and a half tsp salt, stirred it up, and simmered it for a couple of hours.  (I topped up the water at about the 90-min mark.)  Then I strained the resulting stock through a sieve, mashing the veggies to get out all the liquid, after removing the carrot and kale stem bits to add to the dogs' next meal.  I ended up with a little pile of Chihuahua bait and about 4 cups of a gorgeous, wine-colored broth:

The color comes from the cabbage.  This is a wine-free stock.
Now I was ready to start the bean dish.  I sliced a few carrots into the bottom of the crock and tossed in some leftover steamed kale looking for companions:

Next, I dumped in the whole bag of dried pinto beans, which I'd rinsed first, and set the ham shank/hock on top:

Can I just take a moment to express how much I hate the kind of poorly designed ziploc bag these beans came in?

My pet peeve.
First of all, this packaging is wastefully unnecessary.  In a bag of dried beans or rice, there is at most 2 or 3 recipes' worth of product.  Most of the time, in fact, I am using the entire bag, so a resealable package is pointless, and if I really need to save some leftover beans, a rubber band or twistie would do the trick just fine.  Or a Tupperware.  Duh.

Even more exasperating is the fact that you can't actually get the product out of the opening they provide, because 1) it does not extend completely across the bag and 2) it is not at the end of the bag.  This means that if you try to pour out of the opening, the product just gloms together at the end of the bag beyond the opening, clogging the slot.  I always end up slicing the "resealable" zip-opening right off in order to emancipate the beans, so I'm left with a re-closable ziploc and an unattached bag.  It's like having a zipper that is separate from your coat.  Aaaaaargh!

OK, I feel better now that that is out of my system.  Feel free to post similarly cathartic complaints below about packaging nightmares that drive YOU crazy.

I went on to pour the approximately 4 C of stock over the contents of my crock pot:

As you can see, the shank was left sticking out above the top of the liquid, but I decided that it would be OK if I remembered to flip it over halfway through the cooking time.  (I hear a chorus of "don't touch that lid" coming from concerned readers all over the world. . . .)  But then I wondered how this flipping would happen, given that halfway through the cooking time would be the middle of the night.

I needn't have worried.  At around 1:30 am, the wafting, strong aroma of boiling smoked ham infiltrated my bedroom and jolted me awake.  STIR ME!  I guess it was screaming.  You know how a loud sound —car alarm, slamming door, Chihuahua ear flapping — can rouse you from your sleep?  Well, a "loud" smell apparently can, just as well.  I wandered out into the kitchen, a little ear-flapping parade following me, ever hopeful to get a morsel to eat.  I lifted the lid of the slow cooker and flipped over the shank, which was beginning to come apart.  I just jostled it into pieces and stirred them into the beans.  The whole dish was looking a little dry, so I also poured in another 3/4 C water and stirred it all up before replacing the lid.

I know that every lid removal adds cooking time, but at 1:30 am, there was at least another 10 hours to a meal for which I might want to eat beans, so I figured I was OK.   I went back to bed and slept deeply despite the mouth-watering aromas still filling the air.  When I awoke at 7:00, I turned the slow cooker to the keep-warm setting and went about my morning activities.  Here's how they looked when the cooking was complete:

I can't wait for the iSmell app to come out, so I can share scents as well as pictures with you.  The aroma of these beauties was really quite enticing.
I'll post tomorrow a review of how the beans turned out.  If they taste half as good as they smell, we are in for a treat!

Here's to a great beginning to everyone's week.


  1. My pet packaging peeve - child-proof tops on everything from vitamins to household bleach. They're person-proof in real life!

  2. A person-proof pet packaging peeve? Wow, you are rocking the alliteration this morning! I'm with you on this one (being in a childless household)...and how about child-proof lighters and hot-water dispensers?

  3. Heart-shaped sushi is funny in very odd way, but are you supposed to buy it now and wait until Feb 14 to eat it? Ewww-shi. ;-)

    Personal packaging peeve? Those peel-off seals (the foil type, not the furry type) on new bottle tops that don't have anything to grab on to so you have to get out a knife to jab a hole into the middle and then peel off the remains, getting your fingers and a knife dirty when it could've been avoided by the addition of a grab tab.

    Your shirt and beans look great. Just don't get beans ON the shirt.

    (I'm planning on sending off your muslin sometime this week. The Ren Faire costume with an actual due date has been taking up my sewing time.)

  4. "emancipate the beans" I am honestly laughing out loud here. I can't wait to hear how they turn out. I made chili in my crock pot yesterday. It was quite delicious, but I did take the cowardly way out and used a recipe.

  5. I'm with you on that type of poorly designed bag. I hate it!

  6. @Debbie: Oh, I loathe those crappy sealed bottle tops too. Some of them have an "improvement" which is actually more like a torment: they added a teeny tiny little nub of extra foil to the edge of the lid. I suppose this is supposed to provide a handy-dandy handle for the removal process, but how much purchase can you get on a nub that is about the size of a sesame seed? My thumb is quite a bit larger than a sesame seed, and I'm not exactly a giant. Do the designers of these packages ever try to open their own inventions? It's maddening! (But mad props to whoever designed the folded-over half-circle tab that actually makes peeling off the foil seal a breeze.)

  7. I'm with Debbie. Those foil seals on the inside of everything from tomato paste in a tube, or aspirin-aaarrgggh! Usually they have to be assaulted after getting past the plastic seal(ed for your protection) on the outside.

    Your beans look yummy! I've never used stock, usually opting for beer. I was always told that it helped the beans cook without mooshing. I don't know if it does because they always get eaten so fast.

    Your shirt looks fab!

  8. I finally figured out a way to get the foil off, most of the time anyway. I poke fork tines through the foil, then gently lever out the foil from underneath with the tips of the tines. You can get a little lever action going by resting the bendy part of the fork on the edge and pushing. I do like the fold over tabs better though.

    For those bags, I shake every thing down to the non-lock end, squish up the ziploc end in my fist such that there isn't anyplace for the stuff to go but out the hole.

    Waiting for the review of the dish, sounds yummy.

    *wishes my ears would make flap noises*

  9. I agree with the ziplock bag design, totally useless, and they are putting it on everything. I am confused about your onion cooking problem with the slow cooker. I make a nice beans with ham and onion dish that we love with homemade corn bread and I have never had a problem with the onions. It might help to put them on the bottom of the pot, or to keep it on high for the cooking time. I usually cook on high rather than low. That is a four hour cooking time which coincides with my habits. Put it on in the morning and you have it for dinner. Cooking overnight makes me worry and lose sleep.

  10. And if the worry doesn't wake you up, the aromas will!